EVANSTON, Ill. – Rodger Saffold took a knee at the 40-yard line.
The Indiana senior offensive lineman remained motionless as Northwestern players celebrated near him moments after Nick Freeland missed a desperation 59-yard field goal as time expired.
This was the definition of a stunning loss. The Wildcats scored the final 26 points to defeat the Hoosiers 29-28 in front of 24,364 fans Saturday at Ryan Field.
It hurts, IU quarterback Ben Chappell said. We let it get away.
Darius Willis ran for a 70-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Ray Fisher’s 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown put the Hoosiers ahead 28-3 with 7:32 remaining in the first half.
IU (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) didn’t score again as its bowl hopes took a crushing blow.
It’s really impossible to say that (one) play was the difference in the game, IU coach Bill Lynch said. It was just one of those crazy games that so much happened from start to finish. It’s just a hard loss for everybody.
Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka contributed to the turnaround, completing 26 of 46 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 65 yards and one score.
His final rushing play, for three yards, set up Stefan Demos’ 19-yard field goal with 21 seconds left to give the Wildcats (5-3, 2-2) their only lead of the game.
Chappell, who threw for 333 yards last week in a victory over Illinois, finished 15 of 26 for 159 yards.
Momentum, and the game, started slipping away late in the third quarter. Leading 28-19, IU faced a fourth-and-goal at Northwestern’s 1.
The Hoosiers went for it and lined up in a wildcat formation with wide receiver Mitchell Evans at quarterback. The design was to show run and catch the Wildcats off-guard by throwing the ball to tight end Troy Wagner.
But Northwestern covered Wagner, forcing Evans to improvise. He started right, then went back left. He appeared to have an opening but got tangled with teammate Will Matte and fell short of the end zone.
The guy stuck to (Wagner’s) hip the whole time, Evans said. We were just trying to sell run as much as possible. It worked all week (at practice). (Northwestern) did a good job of (defending) it.
Lynch thought the better option was to go for a touchdown instead of a field goal.
I sensed this was a game that was going to take some points and, at worst, you make them go 99, Lynch said.
The Wildcats went 98 yards in 11 plays. The final 51 came on a touchdown pass from Kafka to Mike Brewer, getting the Wildcats within 28-26 with 12:33 left.
IU ended Northwestern’s next drive with a Nick Polk interception, the third for the Hoosiers in the second half. Like the other two, IU failed to convert. Indiana also used a timeout in the possession that followed, its final, with 7:11 to go.
All three (timeouts) were made because of This is a critical play,’ Lynch said. We would have liked to have had one at the end, but we didn’t.
IU failed on another fourth down, giving the Wildcats the ball with 7:04 left. Northwestern took its time marching to the Hoosiers’ 2 to set up Demos’ field goal.
Indiana had time for two plays and reached Northwestern’s 42. Freeland lined up for a 59-yard field goal, his longest is 38, and came up short.