EVANSTON, Ill. — Big-time teams have the ability to make big-time plays.
Northwestern University did just that Saturday afternoon against the University of Maine.
The 16th-ranked Wildcats returned two interceptions for touchdowns and blocked a field goal and a punt to earn a 35-21 victory over the Black Bears in front of 32,726 fans at Ryan Field.
“We lost to the 16th-ranked team in the country, and not in our own division, in the division up,” UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove said of Northwestern, which plays in the Big Ten Conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“We threw punches with them through the course of the game. We didn’t back down,” he added of the Black Bears, who were 28-point underdogs.
Northwestern had its hands full while improving to 4-0.
UMaine (3-1) was bidding for its second win over an FBS foe this season. The Bears racked up more first downs and outgained the hosts in total yards 379-373 but could not overcome the Wildcats’ big-play capabilities.
The Black Bears, who open Colonial Athletic Association play Saturday at Richmond, committed three turnovers.
The first game-changing play came during the final minute of the first half. Marcus Wasilewski’s pass over the middle bounced off the shoulder pads of wideout Derrick Johnson and into the hands of linebacker Damien Proby.
He raced 49 yards for a touchdown to give Northwestern a 14-0 halftime lead.
The Black Bears turned the ball over on their next snap, four minutes into the third quarter. Wasilewski was wrapped up by Proby but shifted the ball to his left hand and floated an ill-advised toss that was picked off by end Dean Lowry and returned 19 yards for a score.
UMaine, which might have had six points on the board had it not failed to convert two first-half field goals by Sean Decloux, trailed by three scores and could not make up the difference.
“I thought maybe if we don’t throw two interceptions that they run back for touchdowns, maybe we’re still playing,” Cosgrove said.
“We made too many mistakes to be there at the end, but facts are facts, they got 14 points off turnovers and that’s how we lost the football game,” he added.
Wasilewski directed the offense through a methodical, clock-controlling performance. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 247 yards with two touchdowns and the two interceptions.
He sustained a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit at the hands of Wildcats safety Traveon Henry midway through the third quarter that appeared to result in an injury to his shoulder.
Wasilewski returned to finish off UMaine’s first scoring drive with an 11-yard toss to tight end Justin Perillo (8 receptions, 81 yards), then hit senior wideout John Ebeling (5 catches, 44 yds.) on a 1-yard scoring toss early in the fourth quarter.
Wasilewski was reinjured late in the fourth quarter when he was sacked by Lowry and was carted off.
Ebeling took a handful of snaps at QB, while redshirt freshman Dan Collins engineered a late touchdown drive after a Northwestern fumble.
Northwestern answered UMaine’s first TD with a 74-yard drive that culminated in a 7-yard scoring run by rugged fullback Mike Trumpy (17 carries, 94 yds.). It gave the hosts a 28-7 lead five seconds into the final period.
The Bears responded with a 77-yard march that featured a 60-yard completion from Wasilewski to Johnson (7 rec., 90 yds.). It set up a 1-yard toss from Wasilewski to Ebeling that made it 28-14.
However, the Wildcats went right back down the field, covering 70 yards on eight run plays. Quarterback Kain Colter iced it with a 5-yard run with 7:49 to play.
Colter (5-for-9 passing, 85 yds.) was held in check, but Northwestern ran for 251 yards and seemed to wear down the Bears. Tony Jones caught six passes for 69 yards and a score.
Sophomore tailback Nigel Jones led the UMaine ground game with 73 yards on 16 carries, including a 10-yard scoring run late for the final margin.
Sophomore linebacker Cabrinni Goncalves spearheaded the defense with 11 tackles, including 4 1/2 for a loss of yardage, and a forced fumble. Linebackers Troy Eastman and Chris Mulumba, and safety Jamal Clay, added six tackles apiece.
“We’re not happy with the outcome of the game,” Eastman said. “I think we played tough. At times, we had opportunities to win the football game.”
Chi Chi Ariguzo led the Northwestern defense with a game-leading 12 tackles, while Henry and Collin Ellis added nine each.
UMaine was without senior defensive end Mike Cole for the second straight week because of a chest injury. Senior tailback Rickey Stevens also was knocked out of Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury.
Northwestern went 76 yards on nine plays on its first possession. Colter found Jones in the right flat for a 27-yard TD hookup.
UMaine came right back, using its short passing game to move the chains. However, the Bears failed to convert when Decloux’s 32-yard field-goal try was blocked by Tyler Scott.
“We missed some opportunities where we had the ball in the red zone and should have scored,” Perillo said.
The Bears mounted another good drive in the second quarter (14 plays, 59 yards). That march stalled at the Northwestern 17 and this time Decloux appeared to hook a 38-yarder to the left.
“The offense, if we put some points up on the board in the first half with those two blocked kicks, I think it would have been a different game,” Perillo said.