EVANSTON-Northwestern rode a combination of big passing plays and stout defense to an easy 28-6 victory over Rice.
Here is the two-minute drill to summarize the action:
Story of the game: Northwestern's defense limited Rice to 254 yards, 127 below the Owls' average, and just missed notching its first shutout in four years. Rice quarterback Nick Fanuzzi, coming off of a 405-yard passing performance against UTEP, completed just 13-of-25 throws for 92 yards against the Wildcats. The Owls punted eight times and converted 4 of 13 third downs.
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Game ball: Wide receiver Jeremy Ebert had a career day against the Owls, catching seven passes for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns. Ebert caught a 90-yard touchdown pass from Dan Persa to open the scoring in the first quarter, the second-longest TD pass in Northwestern history (Mitch Anderson to Jim Lash, 94 yards in 1972). Ebert surpassed his previous career high of 156 receiving yards in the second quarter, and also had a 17-yard touchdown catch. Another highlight for the senior was a spinning, one-handed 33-yard grab in the third quarter in which he turned to look for the ball over both shoulders before cradling it.
Turning point: Northwestern was never really threatened in this one, but the rout was on after Tyler Scott intercepted Fanuzzi in the second quarter. Fanuzzi was hit by Ben Johnson as he released the ball and Scott came down with the floating pass at the Cats' 45-yard line. Four plays later, Persa hit Demetrius Fields for a 15-yard touchdown pass and the Wildcats had a commanding 21-0 lead with just :42 left in the half. Game over.
Big play: Ebert's 90-yarder was the play of the game. On a third-and-4 from the Northwestern 10-yard line, Persa hit Ebert in stride at about the 34, and Ebert turned on the jets and outran the secondary to the end zone. It was the second straight week that Persa and Ebert connected on a bomb -- they teamed up for an 81-yard score last week against Nebraska. Northwestern also had several other big plays in the passing game to choose from, though: Fields had a 50-yarder, and Ebert a 40- and 33-yarder.
Surprise(s) of the day: We'll give you two. First, Persa, who set a career high with 372 passing yards and tied a career best with four TDs, also uncharacteristically threw two interceptions, both on underthrown balls. One came in the second quarter, when Corey Frazier picked him off at the Rice 44, and the other was in the third, when Bryce Callahan intercepted an aerial at the Rice 30. The second surprise was when running back Alex Daniel got two carries during mop-up time during the fourth quarter. Daniel was dismissed from the team last season but has been practicing with the Wildcats all season. His first career carries weren't memorable ones: he was stopped for no gain on the first and lost a fumble on the second.
Topic of conversation: After looking dead in the water last month, Northwestern has now reeled off three wins in a row to even its record at 5-5 (2-4 Big Ten) and come within one victory of bowl eligibility. If the Wildcats win either of their final two games against Minnesota and Michigan State -- both at Ryan Field -- they will be bowl eligible for a fifth straight season.
Getting defensive: Northwestern has now turned in two impressive defensive performances in a row and seem to be peaking as the team enters the stretch run. Safety Ibraheim Campbell led the Wildcats with nine tackles. And while they failed to register a sack, the defense got consistent heat on Rice's quarterbacks all day and accumulated four quarterback hurries, including three by Johnson.