Big Ten

With offensive firepower on full display, 'everything seemed to be working' in Northwestern win

With offensive firepower on full display, 'everything seemed to be working' in Northwestern win

WASHINGTON — If you thought Northwestern was going to try to win in March with defense, then you were probably pretty darn surprised on Thursday night.

One of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten lived up its defensive reputation, but it was the offense that stole the show in Northwestern's 83-61 smackdown of Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament.

The Wildcats struggled mightily on offense down the stretch of the regular season, a main factor in why the team lost six of its final nine regular-season games. But the regular season is over now, and the Cats started the postseason by blowing the doors off the Verizon Center.

Northwestern shot 60 percent from the field including a jaw-dropping 70 percent in the second half. But it was in the first half where the biggest fireworks came as the Cats rattled off a 31-0 run, breaking the Big Ten record for consecutive points in a game.

Most important were the contributions of Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey, two guys who struggled to find their shots over the regular season's final month and a half. Thursday night, they each scored 16 points as part of a balanced scoring effort.

Heading into this tournament and ahead of the bigger one next week, it looked like the offensive production of Law and Lindsey would be the determining factor in how long Northwestern's March run lasted. If Thursday night is any indication, Cats fans might want to block out the rest of the month.

"Earlier in the year when we were clicking on all cylinders, our two wings were averaging about 30 a game. Scottie was averaging 16. Vic was averaging 14. That was when we were at our best. When we didn't have to put everything on Bryant (McIntosh) to be a scorer, we could just play and use each other," head coach Chris Collins said after Thursday's game.

"If you look at our balance tonight, that's what I love seeing. The two wings both getting 16, (Dererk) Pardon getting 13, McIntosh 13, (Sanjay) Lumpkin getting nine, (Gavin) Skelly and (Nathan) Taphorn and (Isiah) Brown giving us production off the bench.

"When we move the ball, get assists, that's when we're at our best. I think you saw that tonight."

The Cats had been in an offensive funk ever since Lindsey missed four straight games while battling mono in the middle of conference play. He's slowly worked his way back from what Collins has said was three weeks without exercise, but he's only sporadically shown the form he showed during the early part of the season, when he was Northwestern's leading scorer, putting up double-figure totals in every game. Law, too, has struggled down the stretch. He scored just a combined 11 points in three of the final four regular-season games (the fourth, strangely enough, saw him pour in 18 in a win over Michigan).

But Law and Lindsey were back at it Thursday. Lindsey got his 16 points on 12 shots, but Law was particularly efficient, going 4-for-6 from the field and 2-for-3 from 3-point range, hitting both of those 3s during the Cats' 31-0 run.

Getting those two guys back on track is gigantic for this Northwestern team.

"I think I was driving the ball a lot more, getting to the free-throw line," Law said. "I think when I was going through the slump, I settled for a lot of jump shots, been off balance a little bit. Tonight I got off to a good start, attacking the rim the first ball."

You can say, "Oh, it was just Rutgers," but that would be selling the Cats' performance short. Northwestern had its fair share of challenges against Rutgers earlier this season, trailing in the second half of both previous meetings and only winning by four when the two teams clashed on Feb. 18 in Evanston. And Northwestern wasn't the only team to have its hands full with the Scarlet Knights this season. Ask Illinois or Ohio State.

Truly the Cats were just picture-perfect on both ends of the floor Thursday night. Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell called Northwestern "an elite team that was playing at an elite level," adding that his team "got blitzed."

Maryland, Friday's opponent, is obviously a different animal. The same can be said for any team the Cats should have to face the remainder of this tournament and into next week's Big Dance.

But while we knew Northwestern could do it on the defensive end, now we know they're capable of doing something like this.

Look out, rest of college basketball.

"It felt like we were clicking on all cylinders tonight," Law said. "We've been in some tough games the last two games against Michigan and Purdue. Purdue, we couldn't make plays down the stretch. To come out tonight, to be as efficient and effective as we were offensively, on the defensive end, to match Rutgers' physicality on the glass, it was a fun night to play. Everything seemed to be working."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?