Rutgers falls short against Northwestern
It was another homecoming welcome this weekend in Piscataway, as the Rutgers football team hosted Northwestern for its eighth and final game before its bye week.
Losers of six straight, the Scarlet Knights (1-7, 0-5) put together one of their best games of the season against a Wildcats team (4-3, 4-1) that was coming off two huge conference wins. But, despite the fight Rutgers put together, it couldn’t hold on to a fourth-quarter lead, ultimately falling 18-15.
True freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski had a seemingly quiet day for the Knights, going 15-31 for 81 yards and no touchdowns, but he showed significant improvement from last weekend’s game, throwing zero interceptions Saturday, the opposite of his four-interception performance against Maryland.
“Yeah, it was very frustrating,” Sitkowski said after the game. “As an offensive team, we're so close and this game is full of inches and one or two plays could've made a difference. Very frustrating. We'll get back after it tomorrow and get ready to work.”
Things started off badly for Rutgers on the very first play of the game, as freshman running back Isaih Pacheco muffed the kickoff that he initiated as a fair catch. He picked it up at the 1-yard line, giving the Knights terrible field position to start the game.
After a Rutgers three and out, Northwestern got the ball back with good field position, and it used it well. Running back Isaiah Bowser ran in a 3-yard touchdown less than 4 minutes after the Wildcats started their drive.
But besides that initial touchdown drive, the Knights defense played their best half of football all season, keeping Northwestern to 2 of 7 on third down conversions and just 84 yards of offense.
On offense for Rutgers, Sitkowski couldn’t get much going early on, finishing the first quarter with just 24 yards on 5-7 throwing. At the end of the first quarter, the Wildcats held a slim 7-0 lead.
The Knights would turn things around in the second quarter, and even take the lead into halftime.
Rutgers put up its first points of the game on a 42-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Justin Davidovicz. The kick made him 6-6 to start the season — only the second Knight to do so since 2001.
One drive later, Pacheco scored his 2nd touchdown in as many games, breaking out of the backfield and running it in from 44 yards out. After a nice first half from Pacheco, it was surprising that head coach Chris Ash or offensive coordinator John McNulty decided to give him just one carry in the second half, deferring to usual starter sophomore running back Raheem Blackshear instead.
HighPoint.com Stadium erupted in cheers possibly the loudest it has all season, when junior defensive lineman Willington Previlon sacked Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson in the end zone for a safety — the first safety for Rutgers since 2009.
“He's trying to bring as much fire and passion as possible. He always challenges us to bring it, and match it,” Previlon said about Ash’s energy after his sack.
The safety brought the Knights’ lead up to 12-7 which they took into the halftime locker room after Davidovicz missed his first field goal of the season from 47 yards out.
Davidovicz made up for the miss on the first offensive drive for Rutgers out of the halftime locker room, which it earned after Previlon and senior linebacker Trevor Morris sacked Thorson and forced a fumble that Morris recovered. Davidovicz hit a 26-yard field goal to put the Knights up 15-7.
Although the Wildcats managed to drive all the way down to the Rutgers 5-yard line, the Knights’ exceptional defense on the day went on full display in the red zone, stuffing Bowser and fellow running back Drake Anderson three times to reach fourth down and leaving Northwestern to settle for a field goal.
After a questionable roughing the passer call (a 15-yard penalty) midway through the third quarter was made on sophomore linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, Ash lost it on the sidelines after watching the quick replay on the video board, yelling at the referees, which resulted in him receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to give away 30 yards of field on one play.
“Honestly I don't care,” Ash said about receiving the penalty. “I've been fighting for our football team and you know, when you see guys out there fighting and scratching and clawing and trying to do things right, you get caught up in the heat of the moment. But I'm going to fight for our team and our guys.”
Both teams would punt back and forth for approximately 10 minutes of game play until the Wildcats got the ball back again with 12:48 left in the final quarter.
Northwestern went for it on fourth down not once, but twice in the drive, and converted on them both. A 29-yard pass from Thorson to wide receiver Riley Lees helped the 63-yard drive down the field that set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Bowser.
Up 16-15, the Wildcats converted on a 2-point conversion to take a 3-point lead with 8:12 left to play.
In an unfortunate turn of events for the team, Rutgers only got one opportunity on offense to try and either tie or take back the lead. A quick three and out gave Northwestern the ball back for good, after a series of good plays and strategy let the team hold on to the ball until the final whistle.
The Knights got the Wildcats down to third down three times in the drive, but couldn’t complete the process on any chances they had, an unfortunate showing from a defense that was thriving for nearly the entire game.
“We had an opportunity to stop them and we made a mistake. On third down, we had the opportunity to make a play and we didn't,” Ash said.
Rutgers now enters the bye week on a seven-game losing streak, but can certainly leave this game with a positive outlook after a strong performance on the defensive side of the ball.
What looms after the bye week may haunt some — potentially four top-25 teams left on the schedule — but for the Knights, they will just be any other games.
“I think we can compete with each team on our schedule, no matter who it is,” said fifth-year senior defensive lineman Kevin Wilkins.