EVANSTON, Ill. — Maine coach Jack Cosgrove summed up the Black Bears' 35-21 loss to No. 18 Northwestern on Saturday succinctly.
"I thought maybe if we don't throw two interceptions they run back for touchdowns, we're still playing," Cosgrove said, referring to the interceptions of Marcus Wasilewski that were returned by linebacker Damien Proby and defensive end Dean Lowry for Northwestern touchdowns.
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."
Northwestern improved to 4-0 as it wrapped up its non-conference slate, 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 (3-1) very well could have been shooting for an upset down the stretch.
"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," Maine tight end Justin Perillo said. "We still put up 21 points against the 16th-ranked team in the country, (and) not in our division."
Marcus Wasilewski was 25-for-40 for 237 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for Maine, which had a 379 to 373 edge over the Wildcats in total yards. Northwestern had posted better than 500 yards of offense in each of its first two games against California and Syracuse.
Running back Mike Trumpy and quarterback Kain Colter each had rushing touchdowns for Northwestern.
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, heading 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. Wasilewski, under heavy pressure, threw left-handed on the run. Lowry snared 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 8-play, 74-yard scoring drive capped by Trumpy's 7-yard run that made it 28-7 five seconds into the fourth quarter. The Wildcats had the ball for more than nine minutes in the third quarter, including the majority of that drive.
"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."