There were plenty of reasons to think Northwestern would avoid a harrowing experience in its season opener against Nevada on Saturday.
For one, the Cats had started 0-2 twice in the previous three years, including last year’s Western Michigan and Illinois State disappointments.
For another, NU returned eight starters on defense and nine on offense, including heralded QB Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson, that rallied after last year’s tough start.
But in college football, none of that matters.
After trailing most of the game, the Wildcats pulled out a 31-20 victory with two touchdowns in the final 5-1/2 minutes.
Thorson, their 6-4, 220-pound quarterback, sneaked in from the 1 yardline with 5:28 left for the touchdown that made the score 24-20.
The NU defense did its part by stopping Griffin Dahn, a 6-5 245-pound Nevada backup QB, when Dahn carried on fourth-and-one at the Wolf Pack 48 with 3-1/2 minutes to play.
Not backing down, Thorson connected on a 45-yard pass to Macan Wilson at the Nevada 3 yardline with 2:35 left. NU then ran down the clock with a pair of packed-in running plays before Thorson’s one-yard run for the final TD.
Down 17-7 at halftime, NU closed to 17-10 on a 23-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander early in the third quarter after a promising drive stalled. It was the first field goal for Kuhbander, a true freshman who had missed his first attempt, from 21 yards out, in the second quarter.
The Cats tied the game 17-17 with 6:16 left in third quarter on a 19-yard pass from Thorson to receiver Riley Lees. It was the first collegiate touchdown catch for the redshirt freshman from Libertyville.
But an interception by Thorson gave Nevada the ball at the NU 17 yardline. The Cats defense held, but the Wolf Pack got a 33-yard field goal, good for a 20-17 lead with 10:13 to play.
Northwestern trailed 17-7 after a first half filled with opening-game mistakes.
Head-scratching penalties. Messed-up defensive coverages. Inability to take advantage of opportunities.
The Wildats endured them all.
On NU’s first drive, senior receiver Garrett Dickerson drew an offensive pass-interference penalty that wiped out a catch. On its second drive, after Nevada coughed up the ball on a punt, the Cats overcame a 12-man-on-the-field call to score.
Thorson’s 33-yard TD pass to Macan Wilson gave them a 7-0 lead that was short-lived.
Nevada answered on a drive that included an iffy late-hit call against Godwin Iguebuike on a sliding Wolf Pack QB Ty Gangi. There was nothing debatable, though, about the 31-yard run and the 11-yard touchdown pass that followed, tying the game 7-7.
Nevada went up 14-7 on a 41-yard TD pass, Gangi’s second, to McLane Mannix.
After stalling inside the Nevada 10, the Cats missed a 21-yard field at the start of the second quarter.
Northwestern seemed poised to tie the game three minutes before halftime, but receiver Bennett Skowronek fumbled after making a catch at the Nevada 10 yardline. There wasn’t any obvious reason for losing the ball on the play.
Worse yet, they allowed the Wolf Pack to go 73 yards in the final three minutes for the 31-yard field that gave Nevada a 17-7 lead.
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