The Wildcats and their fans won’t be living this game down for a while.
This one was hard to watch.
EVANSTON, Ill. — Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 Masters. The Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman games. The Atlanta Falcons squandering a twenty-five point lead to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Last night’s Northwestern-Akron game might have just earned inclusion into that collection of incredulous in-game meltdowns. While the outcome of a rather meaningless nonconference game between two middling programs wasn’t as consequential as one of a World Series or Super Bowl game, the level of collapse was just as spectacular.
Up 21-3 at halftime, Northwestern’s eventual groan-inducing 39-34 loss to an inferior Akron squad was the result of a cataclysmic breakdown in the second half on all sides of the ball, and a transparent sign that the Wildcats have plenty of issues to address before they begin their conference slate.
As Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald succinctly summed it up following the stunning loss: “This game will humble you in a heartbeat.”
Coming off an embarrassing loss to Duke for the second year in a row, the Wildcats were looking for an emphatic win to get them on the right track, and Akron seemed like the perfect punching bag to beat up on. The Zips featured an adolescent offense that was prone to mistakes and ranked as one of the worst in the country, who would have to take on a widely regaled Northwestern front seven. That microcosm alone would tell you enough that Akron had no business making the game competitive.
Heck, Terry Bowden’s team came into Saturday night’s game with just one winning season under its belt in the past seven seasons and having never beaten a Big Ten opponent in its history.
As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything.
But despite what the final score might suggest, Akron didn’t dominate the box score the entire game. In fact, down 21-3 at halftime, it seemed like an onslaught had only begun at Ryan Field, and there was good reason to believe that.
For starters, the Wildcats had ended the first half on a high note, with Clayton Thorson marching the troops down the field on a touchdown garnering six-play, fifty-six-yard drive that lasted just 31 seconds ― something you want to make sure the scouts in attendance were paying attention to.
Jeremy Larkin looked great doing his doing his best Justin Jackson impression, with the sophomore tailback accounting for two touchdowns and already over 100 all-purpose yards by halftime. Larkin and the Wildcats were set up perfectly for their first score, when more than halfway through the first quarter, an errant snap and bobbled recovery from Akron punter Nick Gasser led to prime field position on the seven-yard line. From there, it took just one play for Larkin to punch it in, with the feature back bouncing off an Akron defender before spinning into the end zone to get the Wildcats on the board. He even took down tight end Bennett Skowronek on their chest bump celebration. Ah, simpler times.
The Akron offense appeared at times paralyzed throughout the first half, and their mistakes compounded, often triggering yellow laundry to fly all over the field. The offensive line was penalized for a laughable five false start penalties in the first half alone, and one lineman, in particular, was charged with two inexcusable late-hit penalties. By the game’s end, Akron had given up an absurd 140 yards on 15 penalties, underlying the team’s overall inexperience and ineptitude.
Northwestern looked like they were ready to run away with the contest.
But this game, as the old sportswriting cliché goes, was a tale of two halves.
Whether or not it was a case of Northwestern taking their foot off the gas, the Wildcats looked like an entirely different team ― one that appeared like a squad wholly unprepared for a home showdown with Michigan in two weeks time.
The secondary, which is considered the Achilles heel of this Northwestern team did a serviceable job of holding Akron to just 95 yards passing in the first half, but fell apart at the seams in the second. It bequeathed 277 receiving yards to one of the worst offenses in the country ― let alone the Mid-American Conference ― with many of the receptions coming on big plays in which a defender got beat one-on-one.
“We thought we’d see an aerial assault by them, and when we played plays properly it looked like we defended them well and when we didn’t, they had explosion plays,” said Fitzgerald after the game.
But it was really Akron’s defense that propelled them in their upset victory, as, incredibly, they outscored the offense with twenty-one points to their eighteen.
“To lose the turnover battle the way we did [makes] it very difficult, especially when you don’t have a chance to go out there and play defense off of those,” Fitzgerald said of Northwestern’s three turnovers.
Akron’s Alan Davis had the game of his collegiate career, as the safety intercepted Thorson twice and returned the pair for 97 and 50-yard returns respectively, thanks to the Northwestern offense’s sluggishness and great blocking. Davis ended up with more all-purpose yards, 147, than any other offensive player apart from quarterback Kato Nelson.
“You can never win when you give them three defensive touchdowns, so I gotta be better with the ball in my hands,” said Thorson of the offense’s turnovers. “The ball is gonna be in my hands all year, and it can be three times out of the eighty, ninety plays we run and that’s the difference in the game.”
The lack of a pass rush, ghastly turnovers, and the absence of confidence in the kicking game were all issues that compounded together en route to being outscored 36-13.
Charlie Kuhbander missed badly on both of his kicks, costing the Wildcats six points in a performance that was later excused by Fitzgerald as one in which he was, “dealing with an injury.”
Down 39-28 and undeterred, Thorson attempted to mount a late comeback with less than three minutes of game clock to work with. A miraculous 24-yard touchdown grab from Bennett Skowronek and a Flynn Nagel two-point conversion put the game back within one score.
After the subsequent Akron drive yielded a four-and-out, a final heave into the end zone by Thorson was emphatically batted down, symbolic of his team’s second-half performance.
Down on the field, Clayton Thorson looks away, sighs, and lowers his head. He had completed 33 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns, but that wasn’t enough to prevent Akron from storming the field to celebrate a win they wouldn’t soon forget.
It was a game Northwestern wouldn’t soon forget either.