It wasn’t exactly easy, but a big third quarter propelled Northwestern to its fourth win of the season on Saturday night.
Clayton Thorson threw a trio of touchdown passes as the Wildcats’ offense underwent a halftime transformation and scored 17 points in the third quarter, shaking off a halftime deficit en route to a 24-19 win over Ball State at Ryan Field. The win kept No. 17 Northwestern perfect at 4-0.
Thorson struggled in the first half, turning the ball over three times — two fumbles and a hideous interception. He had one great first-half moment, hitting a wide-open Dan Vitale for a 66-yard touchdown in the second quarter, the Cats’ sole offensive production in the first half.
Meanwhile, those turnovers — specifically the two fumbles — led to Ball State points. The Cardinals got a field goal and a touchdown following Thorson fumbles.
But it could’ve been way worse for Northwestern. Ball State missed a pair of first-half field-goal tries and had a costly fumble to open the second quarter, when the Cardinals were just a handful of yards from the end zone.
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After the break, though, it was all Northwestern and all Thorson. Thorson led back-to-back 80-yard touchdown drives to open the second half. The first ended in a 21-yard touchdown pitch to an again wide-open Vitale, and the second finished with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Austin Carr. The Cats got a field goal the next time they had the ball, scoring on all three of their third-quarter drives.
All that scoring made it a 24-10 Northwestern lead. Ball State, which played well throughout the evening, answered with a third-quarter touchdown drive of its own, against making it a one-possession game at 24-16 after the Cats blocked the extra-point attempt. Late in the game, the Cardinals added another field goal, making it a five-point game. But Northwestern sat on the ball and milked the clock to pull out the win.
Despite an ugly first half and still not a huge amount of points, it was the best showing of the season — excluding a 41-0 romp of Eastern Illinois — for the Northwestern offense. The Cats accumulated 546 yards of offense, while Thorson and Justin Jackson had the biggest days of their young careers. Thorson completed 18 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns, while Jackson rushed 33 times for a career-high 184 yards. Vitale also caught two touchdown passes in the same game for the first time in his career and finished 108 receiving yards.
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The Northwestern defense was tested by Ball State, surprising after the Cats' performances against Stanford and Duke. Ball State had a first-time starter, a freshman, at quarterback and managed 359 yards of offense and more points than Stanford and Duke scored combined. Northwestern allowed one touchdown through three games and allowed two Saturday night.
Worrisome in the long term was the large amount of injuries Northwestern sustained, with Godwin Igwebuike, Geoff Mogus, Kyle Queiro, Connor Mahoney and Ifeadi Odenigbo all knocked out of the game.
Surely it wasn't a smooth night on either side of the ball, but Northwestern's perfect 4-0 record heading into Big Ten play is matched only by four other teams: Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Indiana. The Cats open Big Ten play next week against Minnesota.