Once again, fast start doesn't result in a win for Northwestern

  • Northwestern's JJ Jefferson, left, is grabbed by Michigan's David Long during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in Evanston, Ill.

    Northwestern's JJ Jefferson, left, is grabbed by Michigan's David Long during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in Evanston, Ill. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 9/29/2018 9:45 PM

Northwestern is smart enough to script a brilliant game plan, but doesn't have enough talent to finish off victories.

That's sort of a blanket generalization that can cover this season. The Wildcats have started well and finished poorly in all four games.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On Saturday at Ryan Field, Northwestern scored on its first three possessions to take a 17-0 advantage over No. 14 Michigan. But they couldn't increase the lead and the Wolverines rallied to win 20-17 thanks to a 5-yard run by Karan Higdon with 5:59 remaining.

"Offensively, it just seemed like the plays we made in the first half we went 0-fer in the second half," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I really liked our plan, but I will give credit where credit is due. I thought Michigan's front dominated the second half."

The loss dropped Northwestern to 1-3 on the season, 1-1 in the Big Ten. In three games the Wildcats failed to score in the second half, and the other time they squandered a 21-3 halftime lead against Akron.

The Cats couldn't muster much of a rushing attack in their first game since top running back Jeremy Larkin retired from football with a back injury. Junior John Moten IV was the leading rusher against Michigan with 13 carries for 36 yards.

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Fitzgerald disagreed with the idea the Wildcats game-script their way to good starts they can't sustain.

"I think we made really good discussions at halftime and adjustments that quite frankly just didn't work," he said. "It's been a couple weeks where you sit there and you look at some of those plays we have right there in our hands and we don't make them. That's frustrating. Offensive football is really ugly when it's not clicking."

At the start of the game, Northwestern's defense was solid and quarterback Clayton Thorson was sharp, hitting covered receivers in perfect spots. The biggest play during the three scoring drives was a 36-yard catch and run by true freshman J.J. Jefferson to the 1-yard line.

Thorson played the full game for the first time this season. Coming back from a torn ACL suffered in the bowl game last Dec. 29, Thorson split time with backup T.J. Green during the first three contests.

The Wheaton North High School grad completed 8 of 9 passes in the first quarter, but fell victim to Michigan's fierce pass rush as the game progressed. Even with all-American Rashan Gary leaving the field with an injury, the Wolverines recorded 6 sacks, two each by backups Kwity Paye and Josh Uche.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"When you can roll guys in like that and not miss a beat, it's really special," said Thorson, who completed 16 of 27 passes overall for 174 yards. "That's the name of the game -- protect the quarterback and get after the quarterback. You've got to keep doing that and I've got to get the ball out and we'll win some games."

Michigan (4-1, 2-0) finally scored late in the first half, kicked two field goals in the third quarter, then took the lead with a 67-yard drive. Higdon finished with 115 yards on 30 carries, as Michigan outgained NU 376-202. Neither team turned the ball over.

This is the third straight year Northwestern has started the season either 1-3 or 2-3. Last year, the Wildcats finished with an eight-game win streak.

"We've been in this position before, but we know how to get out of it," Thorson said. "We've got to keep the pedal down. It's easier said than done. We have to play better in the second half."

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