Somehow, some way, Indiana found a way to wrestle defeat from the sure hands of victory.
Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos' 19-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining capped a wild, Wildcat comeback from 25 down and handed Northwestern a stunning 29-28 win over Indiana at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.
Indiana had one last ditch effort in the closing seconds, but after an 18-yard pass completion to Tandon Doss, IU placekicker Nick Freeland came up short on an improbable 59-yard field goal as the clock expired.
The loss dropped Indiana to 4-4 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten and dealt a huge blow to its hopes of earning a bowl berth for the second time in three seasons. Northwestern, meanwhile, moved within one win of bowl eligibility while improving to 5-3 and 2-2 in conference play.
The final result seemed improbable if not impossible considering how the contest started out. Indiana scored on a 70-yard touchdown run by Darius Willis on the game's opening play, added short touchdown runs by Ben Chappell and Willis to go up 21-0 early in the second quarter, and then added a 93-yard kickoff return for a score by Ray Fisher to seemingly turn the game into a 28-3 blowout with 7:46 remaining in the first half.
But the blowout eventually turned into a gut-wrenching defeat thanks to the inability of the Hoosiers to do anything offensively from there on out. After piling up 153 yards of offense in the first quarter, Indiana managed just 152 in the final three quarters and failed to score again.
"We didn't produce enough offensively in terms of scoring points late in the second quarter and in the second half," IU Coach Bill Lynch said.
While Indiana floundered offensively, Northwestern rallied behind the play of quarterback Mike Kafka. The Wildcats' fifth-year senior quarterback threw for 312 yards on 26-of-46 passing and rushed for another 65 yards on 17 carries on the afternoon. He led Northwestern on two late second-quarter touchdown drives to close the margin to 28-17 at halftime, getting the Wildcats within striking distance.
Then, after the margin was cut to nine in the third quarter following a Northwestern safety on a blocked Chris Hagerup punt in the end zone, Kafka orchestrated a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives to lead Northwestern to the one-point win.
Despite Kafka's second-half heroics, Indiana clearly had its chances thanks to three defensive takeaways. But time and time again, the offense failed to capitalize.
On three of Northwestern's first five possessions in the second half, Kafka squandered good drives with turnovers. Matt Mayberry, Austin Thomas and Nick Polk all came away with interceptions, seemingly stemming the tide. But Indiana's offense was unable to convert any of those takeaways into points.
"We had our chances in the second half. We got some stops with the turnovers. When you create turnovers with the defense the offense has to take advantage of it and we didn't do that," Lynch said.
The most costly came early in the fourth quarter with Indiana clinging to a 28-19 lead. Faced with a 2nd-and-15 from midfield, Kafka was picked off by Thomas, who streaked up the left sideline to the Northwestern 23. Indiana drove the ball to the two-yard line before the drive stalled.
Faced with a 4th-and-goal at the Northwestern 1, Indiana opted to go for the touchdown. But from the Wildcat formation Mitchell Evans found nothing to his right, and then after reversing field and retreating to nearly the 20-yard line he was eventually tripped up at the Northwestern 2 and IU turned the ball over on downs.
Northwestern then proceeded to put together an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive that cut the lead to two, 28-26. The drive was capped by Northwestern's biggest offensive play of the game – a 51-yard touchdown strike from Kafka to Andrew Brewer, who had gotten behind IU cornerback Richard Council and then broke free from Council's grasp inside the IU 10-yard line.
Indiana looked to answer, but had its next drive stopped on a 4th down attempt as well. Faced with a 4th-and-3 at the Northwestern 33, Chappell's sideline pass sailed over Evans head out of bounds. Northwestern took over on downs, and marched 65 yards on 13 plays and used up nearly all of the remaining 7:04 on the game clock. Indiana, unable to stop the clock because it had used all three of its timeouts, had to watch precious seconds tick away before Demos' game-winning kick with 21 seconds left.
It was a tough one to take for the Hoosiers, who had visions of a second straight Big Ten win. But now they're left to lick their wounds and try to regroup in time for next weekend's trip to Iowa City to take on the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes.
"You're going to lose some tough games. There's no finger pointing going on in here and there's no quit with this group…it's a really tough loss, but that's part of it. We bounced back from adversity a couple of weeks ago and we'll do it again," Lynch said.
Demos' Kick Caps Improbable Wildcat Comeback
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