True freshmen running backs Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault carried Northwestern's offense all day, rushing for 130 yards and three touchdowns together. Vault (31 yards, two touchdowns) capped off a nine-play, 70-yard opening drive with his first rushing touchdown, and scored again on an 11-yard rush in the beginning of the second half. Jackson (92 yards, one touchdown) scored with 2:09 left in the third quarter on a 21-yard touchdown.
“I think the two young guys are very talented football players that are learning to grow,” said Pat Fitzgerald after the game. “But we’ve got to be stronger at the point of attack to continue running the ball in the Big Ten.”
Senior running back Treyvon Green also had a solid day, rushing for 38 yards on eight carries.
All the while Trevor Siemian's struggles continued. The senior quarterback completed 15 passes on 25 attempts for 117 yards, staring down receivers on easy dump-offs and missing open ones downfield. Northwestern's conservative playcalling also led to a seemingly endless series of punts following failed gut runs that forfeited key first downs.
But Northwestern's defense and special teams provided the opportunities to keep the Wildcats ahead. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo forced three fumbles and recovered one at the Western Illinois 17 yard line, which lead to Vault's second touchdown. Odenigbo also earned two sacks, one of which led to a fumble.
The field position battle has been a consistent issue for Northwestern, but Chris Gradone had a banner day, pinning six punts behind the Western Illinois 20-yard line. And after the Wildcats' poor kick return defense gave Northern Illinois the edge two weeks ago, the special teams rebounded with a Keith Watkins blocked punt and a Max Chapman blocked field goal.
Western Illinois quarterback Trenton Norvell had an excellent day overall, passing for 287 yards on 28 attempts with a four-yard touchdown pass six minutes into the first quarter. But while his throws were sharp and effective in the first half, he lost his edge in the second half after lofting a misplaced ball down the sideline that was picked by cornerback Nick VanHoose.
VanHoose had an encouraging game in his own right, with seven tackles and a pass break up complementing the pick and consistently strong coverage all game. His play since the beginning of the season had been disappointing, but today's rebound was a key step forward for a critical part of the Northwestern secondary.
“We’ve been really challenging him a lot in practice and I think he responded well today,” said Fitzgerald of the cornerback.
Northwestern's win comes at a critical time. After losing their first two games of the season and nine out of their last 10 overall, the Wildcats head to Penn State next weekend to open up Big Ten play. While the team's efforts were enough to beat an (albeit talented) FCS team, there are still pressing problems Northwestern needs to quickly correct.
Fitzgerald said while Siemian’s almost fully recovered from his ankle injury, the wide receiver corps lacks the necessary unity and consistency.
"We don’t think there’s enough trust and enough chemistry and continuity in the group,” he said.
He also had a strong warning for the rest of the team:
“My size 12 is going where the sun don’t shine on this team all year,” said Fitz. Now it’s time for the Wildcats to kick it into another gear.