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 won its first NCAA tournament game in program history on Thursday with a victory over Vanderbilt in first round action. After such a thrilling experience on the court that Northwestern fans for decades have only been able to dream about, the Wildcats had to regroup and focus on the next objective at hand in the tournament. Football coach Pat Fitzgerald was having none of that. He wanted to hulk out and celebrate with the entire basketball team.
As Northwestern men’s basketball coach Chris Collins attempted to get his team to focus on No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round, a somewhat familiar voice chimed in with his feedback to remind the team they are among the best teams in the country. This is the moment players in the room recognized the football coach was in the room. As they thanked the coach for his compliment, Fitzgerald made his way through a group of people to hulk out in celebration.
Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about breaking some droughts at Northwestern. In 2012, Fitzgerald coached Northwestern to the first bowl victory in school history since the 1948 season. He added a second bowl victory this past bowl season, meaning that for the first time in school history the students got to celebrate a bowl victory and a victory in the NCAA tournament in the same academic year. That used to be just a dream scenario for decades in Evanston.
If Northwestern can pull the upset of Gonzaga, hopefully somebody will keep a camera locked in on Fitzgerald for his reaction.
After knocking off Stanford in one of the biggest Week 1 stunners, Northwestern is hoping to catch a championship bug from the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL this week. Prior to kickoff on Saturday against Eastern Illinois, Northwestern will pay tribute to the most recent Stanley Cup champions.
Northwestern has announced Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz (a Northwestern alum and member on the university board of trustees), president & CEO John McDonough and executive vice president Jay Blunk will serve as honorary captains for the game, joining the team captains on the field for the coin toss. Also, as a special treat for fans attending the game, noted anthem singer Jim Cornelison will sing The Star-Spangled Banner. And yes, the Stanley Cup itself will make an appearance at Ryan Field, just as it did a few years ago after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 against the Philadelphia Flyers (as a Philadelphia-area native, this still rankles me).
Northwestern has been making every effort to connect itself with the nearby Chicago area, and this is merely the latest effort in that strategy. Northwestern brands itself as Chicago’s Big Ten team. Just a couple of years ago the Wildcats played a home game in Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. What would really be fun to see would be Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald come out and coach a game in his best Mike Ditka look. That would go a long way to Chicago fans embracing Northwestern. Unfortunately, Northwestern has a bye week on Halloween.
Don’t call it an upset. Well, don’t call it a shocking upset. Northwestern (1-0) dominated No. 21 Stanford (0-1) in Evanston in the early afternoon timeslot, sending the Pac-12 contenders home with a 16-6 defeat. In a reverse of the expected outcome, it was Northwestern that took control in the trenches and used a physical style to its advantage instead of the program that has built a reputation for gaining a physical edge.
Stanford drove right down the field on the game’s opening possession but had to settle for a field goal. Field goals would be the only way Stanford could get on the board, adding a second midway through the fourth quarter off the leg of Conrad Ukropina. Northwestern’s offense had a much more productive afternoon. Quarterback Clayton Thorson had the biggest offensive highlight of the game with a 42-yard touchdown run right through the middle of the Stanford defense, giving the home team a 10-3 lead in the second quarter. Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell had a busy game as well, kicking three field goals, including a 49-yard field goal after Stanford cut the game to a one-score game in the fourth quarter. No need to mock college kickers here.
Stanford quickly got away from establishing any semblance of dominance in the trenches as the battle-tested Northwestern defense (10 returning starters) took control of the game. After Stanford’s opening drive, the Wildcats forced two straight three-and-outs and another punt after that. Northwestern also won the turnover battle (1-0) and was slightly more disciplined than Stanford (four penalties to five for the Cardinal). Stanford head coach David Shaw stuck to a conservative game plan for much of the afternoon, which is pretty typical for the Cardinal, but trying to open things up a bit may have been a wise move for Stanford because Northwestern was covering everything coming right at them quite well.
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan completed 20 of 34 passes for 155 yards and one interception. That pick came in the final minutes of the game when Kyle Queiro jumped in front of a pass to the end zone as Stanford was threatening to cut the 16-6 lead down to a single score.
Northwestern will look to go 2-0 next week when the Wildcats stay home to host Eastern Illinois. Northwestern will pay a visit to Duke for another academic bowl. Duke opened its season with a blowout victory at Tulane Thursday night.
Stanford will return home next weekend to welcome UCF of the American Athletic Conference in Week 2. The Knights are also coming off an upset loss to open the season after being edged at home by FIU Thursday night. The two programs will be meeting for the first time, and neither was expected to be staring down an 0-2 record to start the season.
In 2016 the Big Ten will expand its conference schedule from eight games to nine in a league-wide effort to enhance the overall strength of schedule for the conference. Apparently this is being done without approval from the 14 Big Ten head coaches.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald says, per Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports, the coaches in the Big Ten were unanimous in voting for an eight-game conference schedule.
This is certainly a reminder just who makes the big decisions in the Big Ten, and it sure is not the head coaches.
A nine-game conference schedule does help improve the conference’s overall schedule, but it also has its drawbacks as well. For starters, it allows for one fewer non-conference game on the schedule, which means less flexibility for scheduling options. On another hand, it also leads the Big Ten beating up on itself just a little more, potentially keeping a Big Ten member from reaching bowl eligibility.
The Big 12 and Pac-12 also use a nine-game conference schedule. The ACC and SEC remain firm on an eight-game conference schedule. The ACC, SEC and now the Big Ten all have a scheduling requirement to include a power conference opponent each season in addition to the conference schedule. The Big 12 and Pac-12 do not have such a scheduling requirement. The Big Ten will also eliminate FCS opponents from the non-conference schedule across the conference.