Evanston, Ill. — Northwestern won its first game of the season on Saturday, but coach Pat Fitzgerald said he isn't planning on easing up on his players just yet.
"My size-12 is going where the sun doesn't shine with this team for the rest of the year," he said. "It's not gonna end until we get where we need to be. We're not there yet; we're far from being there."
Still, it was an improvement over the first two games.
Solomon Vault rushed for two touchdowns, Justin Jackson had 92 yards rushing and a score, and Northwestern snapped a six-game home losing streak with a 24-7 victory over Western Illinois on Saturday.
Vault and Jackson, both freshmen running backs, led the way as the Wildcats amassed 166 yards on the ground. Jackson had 21 carries for an average of 4.4 yards, while Vault had 31 yards on six carries, an average of 5.2.
Both players may be competing for carries over the next four years, but right now neither views the other as competition.
"We have to be there for each," Vault said. "When he does good, I get happy. When I do good, he's the first one there on the sidelines. I think we really have each others' backs."
The running backs had the offense's back because the Wildcats weren't able to produce much in the passing game.
Quarterback Trevor Siemian was 15 of 25 for 117 yards, and no receiver had more than three receptions or 21 yards receiving. Without top receivers Christian Jones (out for the season) and Tony Jones (lower body injury), the passing game just isn't in sync.
"We've been a different wide-receiver unit since midway in camp," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think there's enough trust and continuity in the passing game."
Northwestern (1-2) had lost nine of 10 games going back to last season. The Wildcats began last season with four straight wins and finished at 5-7.
Northwestern opened this season with losses against California (31-24) and Northern Illinois (23-15).
Western Illinois (2-2) lost despite having a 376-283 advantage in total yards.
Quarterback Trenton Norvell was 29 of 50 for 292 yards with a touchdown and an interception for WIU. Wide receiver Lance Lenoir had 11 receptions for 115 yards. But the difference was four turnovers by the Fighting Leathernecks and four NU sacks.
"Unfortunately when you play teams of that caliber, you can't make the kinds of mistakes we did today," WIU coach Bob Nielson said. "We were minus-3 turnover margin and had two kicks blocked. You're going to have a hard time beating anybody."
Defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo had three forced fumbles and one recovery to lead an NU defense that gave up yards but didn't allow the Leathernecks to score after their first offensive possession.
Northwestern took a 7-0 lead on its first possession on a 1-yard run by Vault to cap a nine-play, 70-yard drive. But Western Illinois answered on its first possession with a 10-play, 60-yard drive capped by a 4-yard scoring pass from Norvell to Joey Borsellino for a 7-7 tie.
Vault then put the Wildcats back on top 14-7 with an 11-yard touchdown run with 10:54 remaining in the first half. That drive covered just 17 yards and was set up by a sack and fumble recovery by Odenigbo.
WIU had a 40-yard field-goal attempt blocked with 6 seconds remaining in the half.
The momentum of the blocked field goal seemed to carry over into the second half. NU forced a punt on the first series of the second half and stretched its lead to 21-7 with a 10-play, 65-yard scoring drive capped by a 21-yard TD run by Jackson.
Beating a FCS team is fine; now Northwestern must prove it's ready for the start of Big Ten play next week. However, Fitzgerald was surprised to be asked if his team was capable of winning league games.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "As I look at our league, it still comes down to the 60 minutes you play each game. It has nothing to do with any games you've played in the past.
"Quite frankly, I'm not gonna get mad at you, but I'm a little insulted by the question."