All that was missing was the rain. The Pat Fitzgerald parade, off to such a good start last week with an emotional win over departed Coach Walker's alma mater Miami, received a thorough dousing this week in the home opener at Ryan Field. When the overcast skies began to clear, it was visiting I-AA powerhouse New Hampshire with the 34-17 victory over the I-A Wildcats before a sparse and stunned crowd in Evanston.
It would be easy to pin the blame on several Northwestern players, most notably new quarterback Mike Kafka. But instead of blame, this game was more of a reality check for fans after the promising start last week.
Yes, there is talent on this team to compete in the Big Ten, but they are still being led by a redshirt freshman quarterback. Wildcat fans were spoiled by the brilliance of Brett Basanez the past few years and when you turn over the reins to a new kid who had not taken a snap before the Miami game, you're going to get some bumps along the road. Kafka showed a lot of promise and is looking like he could be a keeper if he can get over his mental mistakes of this game.
And even if there is a finger pointing at Kafka, there'd be plenty of digits left to focus on Northwestern's poor pass defense, inconsistent offensive line play and inability to win the turnover battle. Throw in a gritty effort from a solid group of UNH players and you had all the makings of an upset.
The day, of course, began with a moment to remember Coach Walker. The "Walk With Us" tradition of fans, band and cheerleaders greeting the team's arrival is something that will hopefully stick around and a video tribute included some clips sure to warm any Wildcat fan's heart – the 54-51 win over Michigan, Victory Right, OT over OSU and the Iowa comeback last year – along with touching words about Walker. Sadly, there was not much of a crowd on hand to pay a fitting tribute, but there were few dry eyes from the die-hard fans in attendance before the game or during the NUMB salute of "Amazing Grace" at halftime to honor Walker's memory.
The game, however, did not begin with much emotion from the Wildcats of Northwestern. After a nice touchback (not the only one of the day!), New Hampshire took their no-huddle, spread attack right down the field against soft secondary coverage and little or no pass rush to take a 7-0 lead minutes into the contest. To make matters worse, the ensuing blooper kickoff was fumbled by NU and before you could say "Man in the Mountain," the Wildcats from New Hampshire were up two scores.
One nice improvement fans can see in the NU Cats this year is the special teams hustle – last week, it was a blocked punt that broke open a 0-0 game for our firstscore and on Saturday, Northwestern finally came to life with a blocked PAT, keeping the score 13-0 and giving the purple-clad fans at least some hope that there would still be a game and it wasn't over afterjust five minutes.
Once the Wildcats of NU finally were able to touch the ball on offense, they showed why they were expected to have a big day running the football, as the offensive line opened some big homes and Tyrell Sutton dashed 61 yards to set up a scoring run by Terrell Jordan. And when the defense earned a 3-and-out, the Cats got the ball back again and raced downfield for a score by Sutton, giving Northwestern a 14-13 lead at the end of the quarter. Kafka was perfect passing for the quarter with some nice zip on the inside slants and after a disastrous beginning, the Cats looked to be in control of the game again.
But that was the last lead Northwestern would have this day. New Hampshire converted some tough third downs (including 3rd and 15) and a 4th and 1 the next series to reclaim the lead 20-14 and the Cats became the first to blink in this budding track meet by responding with only a Joel Howells field goal on the next possession after Kafka just missed a nice TD toss into the end zone on first down and a so-so play call of a QB draw went nowhere on third down. Still, the offense had three scores in three possessions, while UNH had three in four (one set up by the fumbled kickoff) and we were at 20-17, fully expecting another wild shootout in Ryan Field as we couldn't stop New Hampshire's passes and they couldn't stop our running attack, nicely mixed between Sutton's speed, Jordan's power and a Kafka slant here and there (though Shawn Herbert was noticeably not involved in the game yet).
The NU defense finally got some pressure and forced another 3-and-out on the next series, which gave the purple Cats the ball back with just over 6 minutes remaining in the half and a chance to reassert their dominance. But New Hampshire was starting to stop the NU running attack better and Kafka's first real bad pass fell short of the receiver on third down, giving New Hampshire the ball back with just over 3 minutes remaining on their own 18 yard line.
I know many basketball coaches are fond of saying that games are won or lost in the five minutes before and 5 minutes after halftime, and that was true of this football game. At this point, it was 20-17 and if the Cats had held New Hampshire on 2nd and 12 or 3rd and 8 right away, we probably head to the locker room that way and the Cats come out with the ball after halftime playing for the lead. But a 23-yard completion on 3rd and 8 and a 23-yard pass play later zipped the Cats in blue down the field for a big TD before half. The small but vocal Granite State contingent was jubilant about their chances heading into the locker room up 27-17.
As poorly as NU's defense had played at times, we were essentially at an even game except for that early turnover. The second half would be one where the defense – though unspectacular – held its ground while the offense blew chance after chance to take advantage.
It began with a 3-and-out coming out of the lockerroom and here's where our offensive line either looked like they really lost their swagger or just kept thinking they could push the smaller but more determined UNH defensive line over and lost focus, because the big holes of the first half were gone. The D got the ball back, but a long NU drive stalled at the 34, with Fitz opting to go for it on 4th and 10 instead of trying the 51-yard field goal (a bit gutsy, but not really a bad call).
The defense held again at midfield, but the punt pinned NU back at the 8 yard line as the surprisingly scoreless third quarter was drawing to a close. And then came the second big turnover for Northwestern that was manna from heaven for an upstart I-AA team hoping for the upset. Kafka had been carrying the ball a bit loose all day, and it bit him in the butt when a nice scramble ended in a fumble at NU's own 17 yard line.
New Hampshire capitalized on the mistake, using the short field to take a commanding 34-17 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. With an experienced quarterback, this would be a tough deficit to overcome, but we've seen it happen before at Ryan Field. However, with a freshman and a defense that now knew it could pin its ears back, not worry about the run and blitz, it was darn near impossible.
The fourth quarter became a comedy of errors for Northwestern as the desperation and inexperience showed … a 2-yard pass on 4th and 7, inability to capitalize on a blocked punt (for the second week in a row) and an interception. Most of the quarter wasplayed on UNH's side of the field, but NU got zeropoints out of it. And the Wildcats from New England had a hard-earned 34-17 win at Northwestern.
Coach Fitz got this team focused after a trying off season for week one, but he now has to see how well he learned Walker's lesson of responding by turning them around from this disappointing defeat to face Eastern Michigan at home next week. Hopefully he can keep Kafka's confidence up – he started the game well, has a nice zip on his slants and was this/close to making some nice plays … but he played like, well, a freshman at times. Fitz needs to get Kafka and the team to shake it off and come back next week to show that this week was just a stumbling block in the growing pains of a new QB, OC and HC.
A surprising loss in that it was a win we had to have and should have had, but it really shouldn't be all that surprising. The freshman QB was going to become a factor at sometime, let's just hope this gets it all out of Kafka's system. And we should expect a season of ups and downs this year with all the emotion and new people in charge. Not much NU can do about it now except look at what went wrong and respond with a resounding win next week.
* Special teams. The kickoff fumble was the one bad spot in a nice day of touchbacks on kickoffs, a blocked PAT and a second week of blocking a punt. Nice to see some hustle in this often-overlooked phase of the game.
* Terrell Jordan. I'm not sure if Sutton was hurt near the end of the game or just being outplayed, but TJ was the back most of the second half. He had some nice tough runs up the middle, bowling over defenders and fighting for the extra yard. Good to see him back healthy and we could have our own purple "thunder and lightning" combo with Jordan and Sutton if we play our cards right.
* Hold on to the darn ball! Take away the two gimmes we gave UNH in the red zone via the fumble and you have an even game. Turnovers were the biggest difference in this one.
* Got Herbert? We need to get Shawn Herbert involved earlier and more often in the passing game. Kafka has the slant down, now let's get some other throws in there and work in #3 to help the freshman QB out.
* Offensive line play and defensive pass pressure/coverage. The first was inconsistent after a great first quarter, the second was nonexistent. Both are unacceptable against an undersized I-AA foe.
* Looks like that OSU offense has a swagger and the young D is coming along. If the Buckeyes can survive a possible road trap at Iowa at the end of the month, the rest of the biggies are in the Shoe and the Scarlet and Gray could be making yet another trip to the Arizona desert in January – this time for a second title in five years. Impressive thumping of Texas.GO CATS!!!
* Speaking of thumping, PSU showed their own growing pains with a new quarterback in their blowout loss in South Bend. Smug ole Charlie may have run it up a bit but the Lions really killed themselves and didn't help their young QB out with turnovers. Sounds familiar.
* Michigan and Michigan State won somewhat ho-hum games, and I sure hope both are sandbagging it or else they could become the next victims of the luck of the leprechaun and the overrated Irish hype machine.
* Speaking of overrated … Iowa? OT at Syracuse? Was this the annual Kirk Ferentz September Swoon game but Iowa pulled out the lucky win this time? Or are they in trouble against Iowa State and Ohio State later this month?
* More OT madness as Purdue barely scrapes by Miami of Ohio – either the Redhawks improved greatly between weeks 1 and 2 or the Boilers could be looking at another bowl-less season.
* Creampuff wins for Wisconsin and Indiana (though a close call for the Hoosiers), who have a lot of cupcakes this month before Big Ten play begins.
* Minnesota probably wishes they had their typical cupcake game after their drubbing at Cal. They were in the game early but speed really seemed to make a big difference late.
* Oh yeah … remember how I said the Illini could be bowl bound this year if they beat Rutgers? Scratch that. When does basketball begin in Champaign?
Tough day and probably the toughest non-conference loss to swallow since that Duke drubbing in the late 1990s. Gotta respond next week and hopefully Kafka keeps his head up because there was a lot to like about the kid today.
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Items Copyright 2006 by
Stephen J. Truog and PurpleWildcats/Purple Reign