After surging to a 28-3 lead, IU (4-4) gave up 26 unanswered points to the Wildcats (5-3) in a pivotal Big Ten matchup.
The second half proved to be the difference, as the Hoosiers failed to capitalize despite three interceptions by Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka.
IU’s defeat greatly diminishes any hope for a bowl berth, with the Hoosiers facing three top-25 teams in a row before rival Purdue visits Memorial Stadium to conclude the regular season.
“It was a tough loss for us,” IU coach Bill Lynch said. “They made more plays down the stretch than we did. I thought our kids played hard, but we just did not make any plays in the second half to score points.
“Although the defense did give up yards, they did create turnovers. The inability to take advantage of that eventually caught up with us.”
IU junior quarterback Ben Chappell finished 16-27 for 163 yards. The ground attack was led by freshman running back Darius Willis with 103 yards, though 70 of those came on a touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
The game began to unravel for the Hoosiers with 4:07 remaining in the second quarter.
Kafka’s one-yard touchdown run brought the score within 18 points and shifted the momentum toward the Wildcats.
A three-and-out for IU gave the ball back to Northwestern less than two minutes later. Kafka led a 10-play, 84-yard drive that culminated in an eight-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Zeke Markshausen with seven seconds left in the half.
Northwestern’s score trimmed its deficit to only 11 and the Wildcats received the ball to begin the third quarter.
The deciding factor in the second half was Northwestern’s ability to take advantage of opportunities while IU could not.
Punting from his own 23-yard line, IU sophomore Chris Hagerup had his kick blocked into the end zone and recovered for a safety to make the score 28-19.
The most crucial play of the game came with 1:48 remaining in the third quarter. On the Northwestern one-yard line, the Hoosiers elected to go for a touchdown rather than a field goal. IU junior wide receiver Mitchell Evans lined up at quarterback and rolled right, looking for senior tight end Troy Wagner.
With Wagner covered in the end zone, Mitchell ran toward the left sideline but was inadvertently tripped by his own offensive lineman two yards shy of the goal line.
“It was a play that we put in this week and worked all week, but Northwestern did a good job covering it,” Evans said. “Troy got held up a little bit – the guy stuck to his hip the whole time – so I just tried to make the most of it and it was close. They made a good play.”
On the first drive of the fourth quarter, Kafka took his team to the Northwestern 49-yard line. He followed with a 51-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Andrew Brewer to make the score 28-26 in favor of the Hoosiers.
After two IU drives resulted in zero points, the Wildcats took control.
A 13-play drive by Northwestern ended in a 19-yard field goal by kicker Stefan Demos for the 29-28 lead with 21 seconds remaining in the game.
The Hoosiers had a final chance to score in the last seconds of the game, but freshman Nick Freeland’s 59-yard attempt fell short of the crossbar.
Freeland’s longest field goal of the season stands at 38 yards, and Lynch said Freeland had never attempted to kick a field goal from that distance before.
“In that situation, you have the wind at your back, what are the odds of throwing a Hail Mary for a score?” Lynch said. “The decision is between throwing it in the end zone or trying a long field goal. We felt it gave us our best chance at that time.”
Chappell said that IU’s inability to score in the second half was a major factor on Saturday.
“It hurts, no question,” Chappell said. “We let it get away. But give Northwestern credit – they never quit.”
The running game was almost non-existent in the second half with only 22 yards on the ground. In that period, Chappell was 7-16 for 78 yards and no touchdowns.
Kafka’s quick, short throws also exposed an IU secondary that was injury-plagued and ranked last in the Big Ten for passing defense.
“This one hurts, but we are definitely positive,” IU senior defensive end Jammie Kirlew said. “They were resilient. We just have to find ways to continue to play for four quarters and finish the game.”
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