It started ugly and got interesting late, but in the end Indiana had no answer for the Northwestern offense.
The Wildcats set a school record with 704 yards of offense in a 44-29 win over Indiana Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field to begin the Big Ten season.
Kain Colter amassed 292 yards of offense, including 161 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, Venric Mark added 139 rushing yards of his own and quarterback Trevor Siemian threw for 308 yards in the Wildcats' Big Ten opener, moving them to 5-0 on the season.
But the record-setting day didnt start well. Colter threw an interception on Northwesterns second possession and attempted just three passes all afternoon, but made up for it on the ground and through the air. His 144 all-purpose yards in the first half helped the Wildcats to four scoring drives to race out to a 20-0 halftime lead.
I think theres a lot of ways we could go with this, Colter said, regarding his versatility. We finally decided to bring it out this week, and it was something we had planned for throughout the season. It worked pretty well today, I think we had season-highs in a bunch of different categories.
Siemian looked early and often for Colter, especially on third down. The two connected six times in the first half, including five times on third down, for 90 yards which all went for first downs. Colter finished with nine catches for 131 yards, while Siemian also fed wide receivers Christian Jones and Rashard Lawrence for four catches apiece.
Siemian finished 22-of-32 for 308 yards and an interception, and also had a touchdown pass dropped by wide receiver Demetrius Fields in the fourth quarter. Fitzgerald was pleased with what he called Siemians first start, due to the game plan to utilize Colter as a receiver and runner.
But it was Colter who carried Northwesterns momentum out of halftime and into the second half, scoring on a 15-yard touchdown run, his third of the game, to extend the lead to 27-0.
But the Hoosiers responded with their first score of the game, a 20-yard touchdown scamper from running back Stephen Houston, who finished with 91 yards on 11 rushes.
Less than two minutes later, a Mark fumble following a 25-yard run into enemy territory gave the Hoosiers the ball. Back-up quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who played most of the second half in place of starter Cameron Coffman, then found Kofi Hughes on a 35-yard touchdown pass to pull within two scores, 27-14.
We took some shots down the field and they made some incredible plays, Sudfeld said of his receivers. It was awesome to see just how great of plays they could make. They made me look a lot better than I was playing.
Sudfield finished 9-of-16 for 157 yards and a touchdown, while Coffman finished 13-of-23 with 109 yards and an interception.
Mark atoned for his fumble on the next possession, capping a seven-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to extend the lead back to twenty.
But the Hoosiers struck again quickly, with Tevin Coleman going 96 yards on the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, cutting their deficit to 13 points. The Wildcats settled for a Jeff Budzien field goal on their next drive, his third of the game and 10th straight to begin the season.
The scoring barrage continued into the fourth quarter when Indiana's D'Angelo Roberts found the end zone to again cut the Hoosiers deficit, this time to 10, less than a minute in. An end-around to Hughes for a two-point conversion made it a one-possession game.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said the change in play from the first to the second half was a bout of his team losing itself rather than being outplayed.
I thought the only thing that really slowed us down today was us, he said. We had a plan, I thought the guys were executing it pretty well. One-man breakdowns, not picking things up that we expected to see, turnovers. You lose the turnover battle, you give up explosion plays, kickoff return yards like we did. We dodged a bullet today.
With the Wildcats on the move again midway through the fourth quarter, the Indiana defense came up with a rare second half stop when cornerback Alexander Cobb intercepted a Siemian pass intended for Colter. The halted drive set up the Hoosiers for a potential game-tying drive, but the Wildcats defense, behind Damien Proby's team-high 14 tackles, stepped up to force a three-and-out with less than nine minutes to go.
But as was the case much of the afternoon, the Hoosiers could not get a defensive stop when they needed it. Colter led an eight-play, 62-yard drive, capped off by his 22-yard rushing touchdown, to give the Wildcats a 15-point lead with less than six minutes to play.
Northwestern wins with heavy hearts
Before taking questions at his postgame press conference, Fitzgerald spoke about the hardships the team has gone through this week with the deaths of three Northwestern community members.
First and foremost, very difficult week around not only our football program, but around campus here, our football family and the greater Evanston community. We'd like to express our thoughts and prayers to the young Evanstonian, to our student and to Leon Brockmeiers family.
We dedicated the game on Monday to Leon's family and we want to lift them up in our thoughts and prayers. Obviously taken from us too soon. I know a lot of his teammates got together with his wife down in Florida today and were watching the game. Hopefully we made them proud and we've got two little guys and a beautiful woman that we're gonna need to support as we move forward. Very difficult week for our university and for our entire Wildcat family.