The perfect example of how sloppy Northwestern Wildcats was throughout the first half in the team’s season opener against the Nevada Wolf Pack and just how much they were able to recover in the second half to take a 31-20 victory was seen in sophomore receiver Bennet Skowronek.
Skowronek is among the many receivers Northwestern is trying to sort through to find someone who could replace Austin Carr’s production from last year. Skowronek is not a blazing receiver or anything special. He runs routes well and he catches the ball when thrown to him.
It was what happened afterward on a second-quarter possession that became the problem.
On a third down catch, Skowronek got the first down and started fighting for more yards when he dropped the ball for a fumble. It was another red zone miscue for Northwestern (the team missed a field goal from 21 yards out earlier).
And it was the kind of play that gave Nevada life. And a few deep pass plays from miscommunication in the secondary later and Nevada was up 17-7 at the half.
The Wildcats needed to wake themselves up, get out of their own way and make the simple plays. That is what the Wildcats have built their program on. And they had the players to get there.
Through the second half, just like the rest of his team, they put behind the mistakes of the first half and fought their way back into the game and into the lead.
Skowronek finished the game with eight catches for 123 yards. That included a long 48-yard catch when Clayton Thorson heaved the ball in the face of a blitz, purposefully underthrowing it so Skowronek could come back to the ball and make the catch.
All those solid, fundamental plays began to add up. It eliminated the mistakes from earlier. And the defense did its job, tightening up and giving up just three points in the second half — off an interception from deep in Northwestern territory at that.
Put it all together and the Wildcats were shaky and still have plenty of reasons for concern. They are not out of the woods yet and have plenty to work on before next week’s trip to Durham. But the Wildcats’ 31-20 victory at Ryan Field on Saturday showed the kind of resiliency the team has.
With Nevada holding onto every bit of momentum, Northwestern responded every time. In the second half, the Wildcats not only responded they dominated, erasing a 10-point deficit and zooming into the lead.
It was not without its hiccups.
Clayton Thorson threw an interception deep in his own territory that set up Nevada’s field goal in the game. It was one of the several overthrows he had in an otherwise strong game — 28 for 38, 352 yards and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats did not take the lead until they tried to run the ball up the middle three times on third and goal and needed Thorson to sneak it in on fourth and goal from the one. There were plenty of doubts the Wildcats could get the push even for that yard.
There were still all those doubts. Neither offensive nor defensive line got an incredible push. Justin Jackson, who rushed for 109 yards on 30 carries, was searching for some room and could barely find it.
All the team’s apparent weaknesses seemed to crop up as Northwestern used another vanilla gameplan for its first nonconference game (they have to save something for Big Ten season, right?).
It never felt like Northwestern fully unleashed itself. At the same time, Thorson clearly dominated parts of the game spreading the ball out to several receivers. If not for those mistakes and some conservative play early on, the Wildcats might have won more comfortably.
Indeed, the deficit forced Northwestern to play with a bit more urgency and a bit more aggressiveness. The team went for five fourth downs, converting three, and amassed 508 total yards. The team got its rhythm and eventually overpowered Nevada. After a halftime of adjustments, the defense became a powerful asset for the team.
The Wildcats still have a lot to work on. It was a frustrating and difficult afternoon for Northwestern. The team will have to shore up its offensive and defensive lines and find a way to create push and pressure. The team will be suffering the effects of several injuries to the secondary — Keith Watkins III is reportedly out for the year and Marcus McShephard left the game with an injury Saturday. The team is already stretching itself thin.
But just as there were lots of things to be concerned with, there was plenty to be upbeat about. Justin Jackson is still dangerous. Clayton Tthorson can take control of the game and had numerous receiving options.
And when the Wildcats needed to respond t the adversity they created on their own, they responded.
Most importantly, they got the win as a response. No matter how shaky the team sometimes looked.