Indiana blew its chances at solidifying its standing as a bowl team with a 31-28 loss to Northwestern in Evanston. Northwestern scored with less than a minute remaining to grab its sixth win and become bowl eligible.
It was a game of key plays Saturday as the Hoosiers and Wildcats battled to the final whistle. Unfortunately for IU, too many of those critical plays went the other way. Fittingly, the game was decided in the final seconds after a booth review revealed that Hoosier quarterback Kellen Lewis fumbled the ball away in Northwestern territory to kill the Hoosiers' last gasp comeback attempt.
"It was a tough game and a very tough way to lose it," said a clearly dejected Lynch afterwards. "I was so proud of how they fought back in the fourth quarter and we just had a little breakdown there in the last drive."
Indiana had marched 30 yards downfield in just 32 seconds and was looking at first and ten at the Northwestern 34-yard line trailing by just three. They were just reaching the field goal range of kicker Austin Starr and possibly looking for even more points. On the next play, though, Lewis was sacked by Northwestern lineman David Ngene and as he went down he tried to spike the football with a forward pass. After a booth review, the officials ruled that the ball had simply slipped out of Lewis' hand before he hit the ground making it a valid fumble, upholding the original call on the field, and effectively handing IU a crushing 31-28 defeat.
"We got the ball back with 44 seconds and made some plays to where we were really pretty close to field goal range," said Lynch. "We wanted to take one more shot and then we had a timeout left. It would have been maximum distance on the field goal there, but then we had the tough turnover there."
That critical replay review was just one of many big plays that didn't go IU's way. On the Hoosiers' first drive after halftime Lewis had miraculously scrambled free to find Ray Fisher behind the defense for a seeming 70-yard touchdown strike. The Wildcats threw the challenge flag, though, and replay review revealed that Lewis had just stepped over the line-of-scrimmage as he let loose with his pass. The points were taken off the board, IU was forced to punt, and minutes later Northwestern tailback Tyrell Sutton walked into the endzone to give the Wildcats' their first lead of the game at 17-14.
"I didn't see the replay, but we had a score called back and it had to be awfully close as long as (the officials) stood over there and talked about it," said Lynch. "That certainly could have been a momentum boost."
That reversed call was a big momentum swing during the game, but perhaps none was bigger than a single pass during the first half. Those who have ever questioned how much Lewis means to his team got a resounding and clear answer in just one play Saturday at Northwestern. With the Hoosiers taking advantage of an early 91-yard kickoff return by James Bailey and a 14-yard touchdown scramble from Lewis to grab an early 14-3 lead, they were looking to put the Wildcats far behind in the rearview mirror.
However, after taking a nasty hit Lewis was forced to the sidelines for the first time all season. IU was facing third-and-six and redshirt freshman quarterback Ben Chappell entered the game for his first meaningful collegiate snap. Lynch decided to let him throw for the first down.
It turned out to be a key mistake by both parties.
Chappell's ill-advised pass to James Hardy was picked off by Eddie Simpson for a 41-yard touchdown return. It closed the scoring gap to just 14-10, but more importantly let the Wildcats off the mat when the Hoosiers were trying to put their collective foot on their throats. The entire complexion of the game changed from that point onward in what would become a last second thriller.
"Obviously the next play was the defensive score for Northwestern," said Lynch of Chappell's insertion into the game. "It took a game that we had control of at 14-3 and then all of a sudden it was a one possession game and then we couldn't do anything before the half and then they seemed to put together a couple of good drives (in the third quarter)."
Northwestern would score 21 consecutive points after the brief Lewis injury and take control of the game in the third quarter. IU's bend-but-don't-break defense, which had worked so well in the first half, began to be picked apart by Wildcat quarterback C.J. Bacher and the Northwestern offense. Bacher would finish the day with 276 passing yards by completing nearly all of his 33 passes, 26 to be exact. He was intercepted three times, including two huge picks by Tracy Porter, but it was his lone touchdown pass that was his biggest play of the day.
With just 44 seconds left in the game and his team facing 3rd and 2 at the IU three-yard line trailing by four points, Bacher found receiver Ross Lane just inside the endzone for the go-ahead score at 31-28. It would prove to be the last big score in a game full of big plays.
"It's one of those really disappointing games that you get in and particularly one that gets to be a little bit of a shoot-out," said Lynch. "I think we all felt coming up here that it was going to be a four quarter game and typical of these two football teams. They just made one more play than us."
Lost in the losing performance was another record-setting day by Hardy. The big wideout would finish with seven catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns. He almost single-handedly kept the Hoosiers in the game during the second half offensively and would end the day as IU's new all-time leader in receiving yards and receptions, breaking records held by Ernie Jones and Courtney Roby respectively. Hardy now may be looking at his last game in a Hoosier uniform next Saturday against Purdue as a NFL future looms. It will undoubtedly be the biggest game of his and many Hoosier player careers as a guaranteed bowl bid will hang in the balance.
"It's a big football game for us right now," said Lynch. "This is going to be a long bus trip home for us, but as soon as we get home we got to get our heads up and put everything we have into next week. We play a good football team in Purdue, but I'm confident these guys will be ready to go."
Cats Rally Past Hoosiers, 31-28
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