The 2017 Northwestern Wildcats started the season 2-3 with two losses to open Big Ten play.
Friday night, they clinched their second 10-win season in three seasons and, for the first time in school history, back-to-back bowl game wins with a 24-23 victory over Kentucky in the 2017 Music City Bowl in Nashville.
The battle of the Wildcats that injuries, ejections, questionable calls by officials, questionable decisions by coaches, but Northwestern ultimately outlasted Kentucky as the blue-clad Wildcats attempted a two-point conversion that would have given them the lead with under 40 seconds left in regulation. Quarterback Stephen Johnson’s pass was on target to Tavin Richardson in the end zone, but Godwin Igwebuike and Marcus McShepard provided enough contact to force Richardson to drop the ball, essentially sealing the victory for the purple Cats.
The 20th Music City Bowl was crazy right from the start. Johnson and Richardson marched Kentucky down the field before running back Benny Snell danced in for a touchdown on Kentucky’s opening possession, the first time the Wildcats scored on their first chance of a game all season.
The other Wildcats eventually answered back a few drives later. A long run by Jeremy Larkin set up a 33-yard field goal by first-year Charlie Kuhbander to get the team from Evanston running in Nashville.
But the game was just getting started. At the start of the second quarter, Northwestern charged down the field. Firmly inside enemy territory, Larkin took a handoff but then threw it back to quarterback Clayton Thorson down the left sideline. Northwestern got 24 yards on the play, but lost its veteran quarterback on a rough but legal hit from linebacker Jordan Jones.
With Thorson out for the remainder of the contest, his fellow offensive standout Justin Jackson, in his final game as a Wildcat, emerged to fill the void, punctuating the drive that Thorson started with a five-yard touchdown run to put NU up 10-7 with 14 minutes left in the first half.
You could have expected the craziness would end there. It did not. On Kentucky’s next possession, Snell, already one of the best backs in UK history, was ejected from the game following an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. Video seemed to show an official offer to help Snell off the ground and he declined, but evidently that was enough to ban the back for the rest of the game.
Kentucky picked on cornerback Montre Hartage for much of the contest, but the defender got some redemption in the second frame with an impressive diving interception off a drop by a Kentucky receiver just past midfield. Five plays later, Jackson burrowed into the end zone again, the 41st rushing score of his illustrious career, to put NU up 17-7 with 5:12 remaining in the first half.
But the half was far from over. On Kentucky’s next position, Stephen Johnson was injured on a late hit out of bounds knocking him out of the game for the rest of the quarter. Just a few plays later, linebacker Paddy Fisher was ejected on a targeting penalty for the second time this season, knocking him out of the game for the rest of the night. Kentucky couldn’t do any damage behind backup QB Drew Barker, and the teams headed to halftime with Northwestern up 17-7.
Johnson’s injury was evidently not as serious as originally suspected, because he was back to engineer a scoring drive on Kentucky’s first possession of the second half when he scampered right end for a three-yard score. Northwestern eventually manufactured a drive of its own, and Pat Fitzgerald elected to have Kuhbander attempt a 44-yard kick to put NU back up by two scores. It would have been a career-long kick for Kuhbander, but he pushed it wide left. The rest of the third quarter was remarkably relatively tame, and NU held its 17-14 lead heading into the final frame.
But quickly, the craziness was back. Johnson threw just four interceptions all season, but he threw two Friday night, and the second was returned by safety Kyle Queiro for 26 yards and a score. It was the first Northwestern pick-six since Nick VanHoose had one in October 2015, and this one reestablished a ten-point lead for NU with under eight to go.
But Kentucky, which looked punchless in the first half outside of its first possession, would not go away in half number two. Rebounding from the mistake, Johnson led his team down the field to set up the ever-reliable Austin MacGinnis for a 48-yard field goal attempt. The senior buried it, breaking his own school record with his 22nd make of the season, to get Kentucky within seven with 4:24 to go.
Pat Fitzgerald frequently elects to go for it on fourth down. True to form, facing a fourth and one from his own 39, Fitzgerald had Alviti attempt a quarterback sneak. It looked close, but the spot marked Alviti short, giving the ball back to Kentucky in excellent position with 150 seconds left. Four plays later, Johnson scampered right again and tiptoed just inside the pylon to pull his team within one with 37 seconds left. Head coach Mark Stoops decided to go for two to likely give his team the win, but Igwebuike and McShepard instead all but ensured the win for Northwestern with their combined pass breakup. Northwestern recovered the attempted onside kick and ran out the clock, dancing away from the Music City Bowl with a 24-23 victory.
Larkin tallied 112 rushing yards on just nine carries for the first century-plus performance of his career, but it was Jackson, with 162 rushing yards on 32 carries, who put Northwestern over the top. Jackson finished with more than 150 yards for the fourth time this year, and punctuated his legendary college career with a second bowl MVP award in as many years.