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Charboneau: Northwestern avoids repeat of ’13 letdown

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

For Northwestern, the 2015 season was starting to look a lot like 2013.

It was two years ago the Wildcats opened the season with four straight wins and shot up to No. 16 in the country, prepared to host No. 4 Ohio State in one of the biggest games ever played in Evanston.

That game went down to the wire with Ohio State holding on for a 40-30 victory. It appeared Northwestern, however, was still on the verge of a big season.

Instead, the Wildcats lost their next six games and didn’t even reach a bowl.

Now fast-forward to this season. Northwestern won its first five games, including a season-opening upset of Stanford. It headed into its contest with No. 18 Michigan primed to take over the Big Ten West and establish itself as a player on the national scene.

But the opening kick was returned for a touchdown by Michigan and the Wolverines never looked back, sending the Wildcats into a two-week tailspin that looked eerily similar to the one suffered two seasons ago.

Northwestern was outscored 78-10 in losses to Michigan and Iowa, and it appeared things were going off the rails. Until Saturday when Northwestern headed to Nebraska, a team that has suffered its share of heartbreak this season.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson ran for a career-high 126 yards and threw for another 177, including a 37-yard touchdown pass to Dan Vitale in the fourth quarter that, combined with Jack Mitchell’s third field goal, gave the Wildcats a 30-28 victory at Nebraska.

“It’s tough being shut out and then losing by 30. It weighs on you,” Thorson said. “We came together on Monday morning and said we’re not letting this happen, we’re not letting down.”

It took some big plays early, including a 72-yard interception return for a touchdown by Nick VanHoose. But by the second half, the Wildcats offense was rolling under Thorson.

“We stuck together and found a way to make some plays in the first half and make it a game,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Now, Northwestern is bowl eligible after two straight 5-7 seasons.

“A big team win, a huge team win to get us over the hump and to get to six and get into the postseason,” Fitzgerald said. “But we just talked about it in the locker room. Six is not the destination. We didn’t talk about it in camp — ‘Let’s get to six wins.’ ”

After a bye next week, Northwestern closes with four games that are all winnable, meaning a double-digit win season is still out there.

It’s not something many would have expected before the season, and certainly not after the previous two weeks. But here the Wildcats are, maybe not still alive in the West, but primed to remind everyone they’re not going anywhere.

“It’s really exciting to be bowl eligible,” VanHoose said. “There are a lot of guys in the locker room, me and a couple seniors were talking and we have never experienced going to a bowl game. So it is great to hit that mark. But six is not what we want, obviously we want more than that.”

Nebraska’s near misses

As impressive as Northwestern’s victory was, the script is starting to get a little tiresome for Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers have lost on a Hail Mary to BYU, they lost in overtime on the road to Miami, gave up the winning score in the final minute to lose to Illinois by one point and fell to Wisconsin on a last-second field goal. Throw in the two-point loss at home to Northwestern and Nebraska has lost five games by a total of 13 points.

“We’ve got to make sure we keep grinding,” quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. “We can either give up or we can keep riding this season out and keep working together.”

At 3-5 overall, Nebraska must win three of its final four games just to reach a bowl game. That will be no simple task.

The Huskers travel to Purdue next week before hosting Michigan State, playing at Rutgers and closing the season on the road against Iowa.

But first-year coach Mike Riley intends to keep plugging away.

“Well, I told them we’re going to coach football and practice football on Monday, and we’re going to continue to work to get better,” Riley said. “Everybody that wants to do that will be there. I think that this group will be.”

Buckeye switch

After No. 1 Ohio State toyed with Rutgers on Saturday night, there is only one question for coach Urban Meyer. Why the heck did he wait so long to start J.T. Barrett at quarterback?

It’s hard to argue with results considering the Buckeyes are unbeaten, but the offense just seemed to be a little off with Cardale Jones starting.

Barrett was getting small doses of work along the way, but it took until the eighth game for him to take over full-time. I’d say it was the right move.

The sophomore threw for three touchdowns and ran for a couple more as he was 14-for-18 for 223 yards passing while he carried the ball 13 times for 101 yards.

“I think he’s full swing now,” Meyer said.

No kidding.

“He is the prototype dual-threat quarterback, and he puts a tremendous amount of stress on your defense whenever he has the football,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “He can run it like a running back, and he throws it very well as a quarterback.”

That’s a scary thought for the rest of college football – Ohio State was already good. Now the Buckeyes might just be unbeatable.