It was a game marred by penalties, ejections and injuries, but No. 21 Northwestern (10-3) sifted through all of the hurdles to capture a 24-23 victory against Kentucky (7-6) to win the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Friday evening. Running back Justin Jackson finished off a brilliant college career by rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns to put Northwestern on his back for the win.
Northwestern needed Jackson to carry the load after quarterback Clayton Thorson was lost to a serious-looking leg injury in the first half. Thorson was replaced by Matt Alviti after being carted off the field in the second quarter. Jackson was not alone in pounding out yardage on the ground. Jeremy Larkin got involved in a big way with 112 yards. As much as the Northwestern running game carried the way to victory, it was a big play by the defense that seemingly would help lift Northwestern to a win. Kyle Queiro‘s 26-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter gave Northwestern a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. It was the second interception of the game thrown by Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson.
Northwestern gave Kentucky a chance to come back, however. After Kentucky kicked a field goal to create a seven-point deficit, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald made the incredibly bold decision to go for a first down on a 4th-and-1 on his own 39-yard line. After an instant replay upheld the fourth down stop, Kentucky went to work to try and get in the end zone. A pass interference penalty on a 3rd-and-6 by Northwestern gave Kentucky the ball at the nine-yard line, and Johnson ran it in for a score.
Rather than go for a tie in the final minute of the game, Kentucky opted to go for a two-point conversion, but the pass attempt by Johnson fell incomplete. Northwestern then recovered the kickoff to run out the clock.
Northwestern has now won bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. It is also the second time in three years Northwestern has hit 10 wins, and the third time under Fitzgerald. With the win, the Big Ten improves to 4-0 this bowl season, while the SEC drops to 0-3 out of the gates. Kentucky has not won a bowl game since 2008.
Northwestern will open the 2018 season with a conference game against Purdue on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. The Wildcats have a tough draw in cross-division play with Michigan and a road game at Michigan State in back-to-back weeks followed by a home game against Nebraska. Northwestern also hosts Notre Dame next November Kentucky begins the 2018 season at home on Sep. 1, 2018 against Central Michigan before a Week 2 road trip to Florida in SEC play.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson was taken off the field for further medical examination after appearing to injure his right leg on a trick play. Not long after that, an official tossed Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. from the game after making contact with an official. It’s been quite a first half in the Music City Bowl, where Northwestern leads Kentucky by a score of 17-7 at the half.
After Thorson hauled in a pass from Jeremy Larkin, Thorson appeared to injure his right leg before contact was made by the nearby Kentucky defender. The 23-yard gain was the result of a brilliant play call from the Northwestern sideline, but the loss of starting quarterback put the game on pause for a few moments before play resumed after Thorson was carted off.
Justin Jackson scored a touchdown on a five-yard run shortly after the Thorson injury. The run gave Northwestern a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. Earlier in the drive, Jackson became the 10th all-time leading rusher in college football history, passing Damion Fletcher of Southern Miss and Anthony Thompson of Indiana to move to No. 10 among FBS players. Jackson would add a second touchdown later in the second quarter to extend the Northwestern lead to 17-7. Matt Alviti came in to play quarterback for the Northwestern Wildcats.
On the ensuing possession, Kentucky’s top running back was ejected from the game after making contact with an official. The call, however, has left many wondering if the ref went a tad overboard with his decision. You decide for yourself if Snell should have been ejected for this?
The ref show once again popped up late in the second half when Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops and the Kentucky sideline appeared to want a late hit out of bounds call against Northwestern when quarterback Stephen Johnson was taken down on the sideline. No flag was called, until a ref decided to throw one on the Kentucky sideline for unsportsmanlike conduct. Johnson was taken off the field for possible medical attention, and he was seen jawing at a ref on his way off the field.
The officials didn’t just have all of their controversial calls on the Kentucky side. Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher was tossed from the game late in the first half for targeting, although it was one of many very questionable targeting calls we have seen in college football. It has not been a great day for this officiating crew, to say the least.
As the Music City Bowl goes to the second half, it is still up for grabs between the Wildcats of the Big Ten and SEC, if there are enough players to actually finish this game. Kentucky is looking for their first bowl victory since 2008. Northwestern is looking for back-to-back bowl wins
A week after knocking off Nebraska, No. 8 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) all of a sudden could be ready to regain control of the Big Ten West with a little help later tonight. After tying down a win against Northwestern (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten) with a 21-7 decision, the Badgers now are one Nebraska loss away from taking over the top spot in the division. Nebraska plays at Ohio State tonight.
Corey Clement rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown to lead Wisconsin’s ground attack, which combined for over 220 yards as a team against Northwestern’s defense. The Badgers got a quiet but adequately efficient passing effort from Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston when called upon. The story of the game was Wisconsin’s defense, which held Northwestern to just one score, which came late in the first half. At the time, it felt like a possible momentum shift, but Northwestern was forced to punt on their first three drives of the second half, with a pair of three-and-outs. Down 13-7, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson fumbled away the football in the fourth quarter, which led to a Wisconsin touchdown (and two-point conversion).
Wisconsin controlled the football for 37 minutes.
Wisconsin will have to wait to see what happens with Nebraska, but the Badgers have a more favorable remaining schedule in front of them regardless of what the Huskers do against the Buckeyes. Next week, Wisconsin will host Illinois. After that is a road game at Purdue before closing out the regular season at home against rival Minnesota. The Badgers are 21-0 against Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota since 2008.
Northwestern may be out of the division hunt, but the Wildcats still have work to do to reach a bowl game. Northwestern must win two of its final three games to reach the six-win minimum (without getting into 5-7 scenarios, which would appear to be highly favorable for Northwestern). Northwestern will have games at Purdue and home against Illinois as well as a road game at Minnesota. Northwestern should probably get to six wins.
On the road against Northwestern, Wisconsin nearly held the Wildcats scoreless in the first half while the Badgers’ running game has effectively controlled the clock. At the half, Wisconsin leads Northwestern 10-7.
A solid defensive battle saw Wisconsin find a crack in the Wildcats defense in the second quarter when Jazz Peavy took off for a 46-yard touchdown run to put Wisconsin up 10-0. Peavy also was on the receiving end of a big play earlier in the game with a 32-yard reception from Bart Houston. That drive led to a field goal. Wisconsin also missed a field goal in the first quarter.
After a real struggle of a first half, Northwestern appeared to find some momentum on their final offensive possession of the half. Clayton Thorson completed a 13-yard pass to Austin Carr for a much-needed touchdown in the final minute of the half.
This is a pretty pivotal game in the Big Ten West. A win keeps a shot at playing for the Big Ten championship within sight. Wisconsin already owns a head-to-head tiebreaker with Nebraska following last week’s win, so a win could give the Badgers the edge in the division depending on what happens to Nebraska later tonight at Ohio State. A Wisconsin win and a Nebraska loss gives Wisconsin the inside track to Indianapolis. The same cannot be said for Northwestern, as the Wildcats lost a head-to-head tiebreaker with Nebraska earlier this season. But a win for the Wildcats keeps them in the mix, while a loss probably knocks them out of the running in the division.
Iowa running back Akrum Wadley has scored two touchdowns to help power Iowa to a 16-10 halftime lead at Northwestern. The Hawkeyes ran out to a 16-0 lead, but the Wildcats have started to chip away at the lead heading into the break.
Iowa opened the scoring with a 36-yard field goal off the leg of Marshall Koehn in the first quarter, but the Hawkeyes reached the end zone twice in the second quarter. Wadley ripped off a 35-yard run on the first play of the second quarter to put the Hawkeyes up 9-0, and Wadley added a second touchdown from a much shorter distance four and a half minutes later to make it 16-0. Northwestern’s Christian Jones later caught a short touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to get on the board. A short field goal later in the first half made it just a six-point game.
Barring a surprising collapse by Iowa, it would appear as though the Hawkeyes are well on their way to continuing their undefeated season. Keep in mind the Hawkeyes already have a win against Wisconsin under their belts and there is no Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State on the schedule this fall for the Hawkeyes. Iowa has become the team to chase in the Big Ten West and is looking to take another step toward Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game this afternoon in Evanston.