Final: No. 17 Northwestern 24, Ball State 19

Telling stat: Clayton Thorson’s career-high three touchdown passes

The freshman responded with the Wildcats struggling early. He delivered the best stretch of his young career with three touchdown passes, all of which came on passes in between the hashes. For whatever reason, Ball State lost Dan Vitale twice and Thorson took advantage. Credit the freshman for stepping up and recognizing a defensive breakdown. He’s doing a better job of keeping his eyes downfield and making plays. That’s important for a first-year starter.

Key play: Thorson touchdown pass to Austin Carr in third quarter

Facing a third-and-seven, Thorson made his biggest throw of the day to Carr to give the Wildcats a two-possession lead. It was one of the rare moments in which Northwestern had some breathing room on Saturday night. Without it, the Wildcats would’ve had a long field-goal attempt in a one-score game. A two-possession lead is all Northwestern’s defense could ask for.

Worth noting:

-Injury bug bites

Northwestern got through the first three games without a major injury. On Saturday, the Cats couldn’t get out of the first quarter without five injuries. Garrett Dickerson, Godwin Igwebuike, Geoff Mogus, Kyle Queiro and CJ Robbins were all banged up in the first quarter. Igwebuike and Mogus both missed the rest of the game with upper body injuries, while Robbins did return in the second half. Even Ifeadi Odenigbo went down in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury. Without assuming the severity of any of them, that’s not what the Wildcats wanted to see happen in the non-conference finale. Northwestern’s defense performed as well as an unit in the country so far, and breaking up that continuity is something the Wildcats would obviously like to avoid.

-Justin Jackson is still a horse

I wonder if someone ever told Jackson that he was too small to be a feature back. If they did, I hope they were watching on Saturday night. The sophomore had 33 carries for 189 yards, which marked his second straight game surpassing 30 rushes. I love that Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t get too cute with preserving him. Solomon Vault and Thorson both get carries of their own, but there’s no denying who does the heavy lifting on offense.

What it means: Northwestern is in familiar territory

Take a little trip down memory lane. Two years ago, the No. 16 Wildcats were 4-0 with two wins against Power Five teams heading into B1G play. Then they fell apart down the stretch to Ohio State and the whole season fell apart. Seven straight losses turned Rose Bowl hopes into a bowl-less reality. This is a different team, and one with two more respectable wins than either that the 2013 squad had. This group can learn from that experience. The Wildcats might not be at 100 percent heading into the B1G opener against Minnesota, which could be the difference for two defensive-minded, ball-control teams. Healthy or unhealthy, Northwestern has no excuse not to keep its start rolling into conference play.