EVANSTON, Ill. – Sure there were a few moral victories, but that doesn’t add anything to the win column.
The University of Maine tested Northwestern — ranked No. 18 among the nation’s top programs — but in the end the underdog Black Bears were overmatched. Linebacker Damien Proby and defensive end Dean Lowry each had an interception return for a touchdown to lead Northwestern to a 35-21 win over Maine on Saturday.
“I thought maybe if we don’t throw two interceptions they run back for touchdowns, we’re still playing,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove. The two plays, within about five minutes of each other late in the second quarter and early in the third, gave Northwestern a 21-0 lead.
Maine cut the gap to 14 points three times, but could come no closer.
“Our defense played their fannies off for three quarters. I thought they were outstanding,” Cosgrove said. “Facts are facts. They got 14 points off turnovers and that’s how we lost the football game. That’s the margin.”
Maine (3-1), a member of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division 1-AA), had a 379-373 edge in total yards over the Wildcats, who had posted better than 500 yards of offense in each of their first two games against California and Syracuse.
Marcus Wasilewski was 25 for 40 for 237 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for Maine. Justin Perillo had eight catches for 81 yards and a touchdown, while Derrick Johnson added seven catches for 90 yards. Nigel Jones led Maine’s run game with 73 yards on 16 carries. He also scored a touchdown.
“The offense, we had a couple opportunities in the first half to punch in some points, get some touchdowns and we couldn’t capitalize on that,” Perillo said.
Northwestern improved to 4-0 as it wrapped up its non-conference schedule, but this was not the consistent, steady performance Coach Pat Fitzgerald was looking for heading into the Big Ten season. If not for the interception returns for scores, Maine could have been shooting for an upset down the stretch.
“I don’t think we were worn out,” Maine linebacker Troy Eastman said. “The way the game went, they had success late. We had success early. We need to finish the ball game the way we want to.”
Running back Mike Trumpy and quarterback Kain Colter each had rushing touchdowns for the Wildcats.
Northwestern scored on its first offensive possession as Colter and receiver Tony Jones hooked up on a 27-yard scoring pass to cap a nine-play, 76-yard drive with 10:18 left in the opening quarter. That was the Wildcats’ last offensive score until the fourth quarter. Fortunately for Northwestern, the defense came through.
Proby had a 49-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute of the second quarter to give Northwestern a 14-0 lead. On the play, Wasilewski’s pass was tipped by receiver Derrick Johnson and Proby snatched it out of the air and headed the other way with a convoy of blockers along for the ride.
Less than five minutes into the second half, the defense made another huge play. Proby pressured Wasilewski and caused the quarterback to lose control of the pass as he attempted to throw on the run.
Lowry grabbed the floating pass and returned it 19 yards for the score to make it 21-0.
Maine finally got on the board with 3:02 left in the third as Wasilewski found Perillo for an 11-yard scoring pass to make it 21-7.
Northwestern, though, dashed hopes of a Maine comeback on the ensuing possession when the offense produced an eight-play, 74-yard scoring drive capped by Trumpy’s 7-yard run that made it 28-7 five seconds into the fourth quarter.
Wasilewski’s 1-yard pass to John Ebeling with 11:06 left made it 28-14. Jones’ 10-yard run with 2:22 left brought the score to 35-21.
“I think we played real hard.” said Cosgrove. “I liked the way we finished the football game offensively, because we had some rough goes — we didn’t finish some drives in the first half of the football game.”