Coming off of a historically successful 2015 campaign in which Northwestern simply found ways to win week after week, the ‘Cats came up just short in their 2016 season opener.
The favorite to win the Mid-American Conference, Western Michigan took a one-point lead thanks to a one-yard touchdown run with 5:38 remaining, Clayton Thorson fumbled just short of the goal line with just under three minutes left, and the upstart Broncos won their first game over a Big Ten opponent since 2008, stunning Northwestern 22-21 at Ryan Field Saturday.
Unlike many surprise wins in football, there was nothing fluky about the Broncos’ one-point upset. Western Michigan out-gained Northwestern by almost 100 yards, had 12 more first downs, and possessed the football for almost two-thirds of the game.
The Wildcats looked the part of a 10-2 team from 2015 early on, opening the ballgame by driving 75 yards down the field. Justin Jackson capped off the over-five minute drive with a one-yard touchdown run, his first of three scores on the day.
Western Michigan kicked a pair of field goals in the game’s first 30 minutes and trailed by one point, 7-6, at intermission.
Mirroring Northwestern’s drive to start the game, PJ Fleck’s squad drove more than 70 yards down the field to open the second half and take its first lead of the day, 13-7.
A 46-yard touchdown run from Jackson gave Northwestern a one-point lead, but Western Michigan responded on the game’s next drive by kicking a 30-yard field goal to take a 16-14 lead.
But in the back-and-forth game, the ‘Cats responded with a 63-yard drive that ended with Jackson’s second one-yard touchdown run of the game and third TD of the day. Jackson finished with 171 total yards on 23 carries and two receptions.
Trailing 21-16 and on cue, the Broncos put together a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ate up almost seven minutes of clock and ended in six points.
Down a point, Northwestern, like they did so many times a year ago, looked like it was going to somehow find a way to win. The ‘Cats drove down the field and had first and goal on the Broncos’ six-yard line with just over three minutes left in the game.
But on first and goal, Thorson scrambled to his left, dove toward the goal line, and lost the football. Western Michigan took over because the ball went out of the endzone and iced the game thanks to a couple of clutch third down conversions to secure a big non-conference win.
The Wildcats will look to get back on track and pick up their first win of the season next week when they host FCS opponent Illinois State. Kickoff at Ryan Field is slated for 3:30 p.m.