The offense was lifeless, turnover prone, committing stupid penalties to end any hopes of getting a drive and not much was happening.GAME BALLS
But in the final 2 and a half minutes, some of that old Dyche Stadium magic was present as senior Brett Basanez and the offense came alive in time to engineer a 28-27 "Cardiac Cats" style victory over Iowa. The win made Northwestern bowl eligible and ensured that for the third straight year, Coach Randy Walker's team would have at least six wins and a .500 or better record in the conference.
Entering Ryan Field on Saturday was a world apart from entering the stadium last week for the Michigan game. The excitement in the air for homecoming was gone and it was if the air had been let out of the place. The student stands – full a good hour before kickoff for Michigan – were almost empty and so was most of the stadium. And the gray, overcast and misty November day just summed up the mood. It was a Sleepy Hollow day and the Wildcat offense picked up where it left off last week against Michigan – in mid slumber.
Iowa stormed out of the gate to drive down the field for a 7-0 lead. Drew Tate was perfect on the drive and the Hawkeyes never reached third down. The Cats offense still seemed to think they were playing Michigan on their first drive, with little running game and receivers failing to help Baz out by dropping passes. Iowa responded with another scoring drive thanks to a short field and a miserable punt and it was quickly 14-0 and not looking good for Wildcat fans.
The Wildcats did score in the second quarter on a nice third and long pass from Basanez to Shawn Herbert (the middle was open all day – we just dropped a lot of home run balls or stopped running). But Iowa stormed right back down the field and a helicopter dive by Tate made the score 21-7 and took momentum away. Iowa added a field goal before half after the NU defense stood up in the red zone and it was 24-7 at the break.
Tyrell Sutton mustered a little offense in the third and it was 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter when things got wild. The weather was starting to play a role with the mist and fog turning into moderate rain (I have no idea why the lights were not turned on – yes, we don't have a full set, but it was getting pretty dark down there) and the NU offense was still sputtering to get something started. After the Hawkeyes again pinned the Cats deep, a Basanez interception set up Iowa in the red zone with a chance to put the game away.
But the defense held Iowa to a field goal. And a later Hawkeye drive resulted in a missed 41-yard field goal. Those were two HUGE stops for the defense. We didn't get a turnover on the day, but the defense came up big in the second half by keeping this game within striking distance.
All that was missing was the offensive spark to take advantage of the defensive stops. But that was just not there. Between the last two quarters of Michigan and the first three and a half Saturday, the Wildcat
offense had looked about as bad as it could look with ineffective play calling, poor execution, self-inflicted wounds, drops and more. And when Basanez threw his second interception with just over 5 minutes left in the game after the Cats had driven inside the Iowa 40, the game appeared to be over and many purple fans headed for the exits while the bumblebees celebrated.
Speaking of which, I had forgotten what a pleasure it is to host Iowa and Iowa fans at Ryan Field. They're certainly loyal, boisterous and support their team. But they are crude and obnoxious as well (basically Wisconsin fans without the cheese and brats … and that doesn't redeem them, but cheese and brats can go a long way). They were making themselves at home, confident of their victory and about to get the shock of their lives.
The Cats – in a smart coaching move – had saved all their timeouts and managed to force a punt. Basanez quickly drove NU down the field (with the help of a nifty quarterback draw) and Sutton punched it in to make it a 27-21 game with just over 2 minutes remaining.
And then came the onside kick. On a wet day, you can hope for a fumble, but it's tough to see an onside kick converted on grass anymore without a turf bounce. I'm not sure how the Cats did it, but Joel Howells got a perfect bounce and Reggie McPherson snagged it out of the air for the HUGE play. Basanez quickly drove NU down the field again and found Ross Lane by the goal post for the 28-27 lead with just under a minute left on the clock. In les than 90 seconds, what was looking like a disappointing home finale for Baz and the seniors became a potential rally cry for the season and showed that the Cats are capable of bouncing back.
There was still a lot of time left, but Iowa had wasted its timeouts and the defense got a little pressure on Iowa. When the Hawkeyes dropped 4th and 8 with :07 remaining, the comeback was complete and the loyal NU fans in the stands went into a frenzy. Final score, 28-27, CATS WIN!
Any season that has wins over Iowa and Wisconsin (our two REAL rivals) is a good one! But this win is extra sweet because it was a bounce back from the Michigan loss (and from 57 minutes of terrible football). It was a fitting salute to our seniors and a great way to send them off in style. Now hopefully it turns into something more – like a win in Champaign, another In Columbus and another in a bowl.
And the legacy these seniors leave? The Cats are now eligible for the sixth bowl appearance in school history – the third in Randy Walker's tenure as coach. And for the third straight season, Northwestern will have at least six wins and no worse than a .500 record in the Big Ten conference. Those are BIG steps on which to build a program.
It wasn't a pretty day and for 57 minutes, it was an ugly game – but true Cats fans know that it's never over when you play the Cardiac Cats and the guts and determination of this squad to bounce back and get the rally is a testament to our players, coaches, program and seniors. This was a big win!
* Brett Basanez – With three minutes left in the game, it looked as if Baz's last home game would be one of his worst and that much of the loss would be on his shoulder. But in the last two minutes, Baz showed why he is the Big Ten's MVP by a long shot and still one of the more dangerous quarterbacks in the country on a bad day. He took some monster shots (some legal, some cheap) and stood in there until the last nanosecond on that winning TD pass to get the ball in there. It's going to be a shock next season to walk into Dyche Stadium and not see #14 in command of the office.THINGS TO WORK ON
* Reggie McPherson and the onside kick team – Special teams were a disaster for NU most of the day, usually resulting in a 20-30 yard field position edge for Iowa. But they came up BIG when it counted with one of the better onside kicks I have seen executed (and I can't remember too many working at Ryan Field – even with all the comebacks there I the last decade). You just don't see that kind of bounce on grass usually, and after it soared over the front line of Hawkeyes, it still looked like it was headed to the second line of gold and black until McPherson made an incredible athletic leap to snag the ball.
* Tim McGarrigle and the defense – Yeah, it was a dismal opening half and they gave up a lot of yardage, but they settled down nicely after the first quarter despite being put in some poor field position by the offense's ineffectiveness and dreadful punting. After three quick Iowa TDs, the D held the Hawks to only two field goals the rest of the day and much like last week, kept hope alive. This time, the offense was able to wake up and snatch the win in time. And it seemed like the PA announcer said Tim McGarrigle's name every other play. Once again, #41 was everywhere on the field and showed why he will be sorely missed next year. However, our linebacker tradition of the last 10-15 years looks to be in solid hands with Nick Roach, who also made some nice plays.
* The opening drive – Last year we wanted the ball first, this year we defer. Which I generally agree with because we've needed that drive out of halftime a couple times this year and it sends a vote of confidence to our defense. But it's backfired the last couple weeks as we start in a 7-0 hole by the time the O gets the ball. Be aggressive - blitz or cover tight, but you can't have no pressure AND a soft zone.AROUND THE LEAGUE
* Special teams – Even before the rain came, the punting was brutal and kickoffs weren't much better. Our kickoff returns never got past the 20 and we lost the battle of field position all day. We can not do that if we hope to stay even close in Columbus.
* Get Sutton started – Yes, I know defenses are stacking the box and keying on #19, but we have to find ways to get him touches and get him going in the game early and stick with the run even if we get behind. In the fourth quarter, Sutton had two runs (one with a couple nifty Play Station-worthy spins and the other where he pushed the pile ahead 4 yards at the end of the play) that reminded Wildcat fans that even though #14 and #41 may be moving on, there will be plenty of reasons to come back next year. It's going to be exciting to watch this kid develop over the next few years.
* PENN STATE solidified its hold on the BCS bid from the league with a whuppin' of Wisconsin. Now JoePa has two weeks to prepare for a dangerous road game at MSU in order to secure only the second Big Ten title for PSU since they entered the league in 1993.
* OHIO STATE started slow but piled it on Illinois late. Hopefully they'll be looking ahead to the annual mega-game in Ann Arbor when we visit next week but still, with that D and the O gaining confidence, the Bucks are making a solid case for a BCS at-large bid if they can't overtake PSU.
* PURDUE really put a dent in MSU's bowl hopes with the upset this week. You knew Tiller was gonna play spoiler for someone – thankfully it wasn't us. Sparty now needs to win at Minnesota or vs. PSU to get in to
the postseason and face yet another late-season collapse after a promising start that included the win at ND.
* MINNESOTA clinched bowl eligibility and all but destroyed Indiana's hopes to make it back to postseason play for the first time in ages (Michigan should take care of that officially next week when the Hoosiers visit). Still, nice first season for Coach Hoeppner. As for the Gophers, beating MSU at home and Iowa on the road could improve their bowl status to as high as the Alamo.
What a wonderful – and typically Northwestern – way to end the season at home. Thank you seniors for laying the foundation for building a winning program at Northwestern with three straight 6-win seasons and non-losing Big Ten marks. Sad to see the season over already at home, but I doubt any of us expected 6-3 at this point back in August and we now have a 12th game (and all that extra practice) to look forward to!
Now don't settle for just six wins – get an upset in Columbus next week and force the higher bowls to take the Cats and let's win that bowl game!
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STEPHEN J. TRUOG
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