SjT: View from the Stands – Purdue 31, NU 10

Someone scripted a perfect first few plays for the Northwestern Wildcats on their first offensive series against Purdue on Saturday. Unfortunately, it didn't appear to be the same person who called the rest of the offensive game for NU, as the same tired script failed again and again to generate offense in a 31-10 defeat to the Boilermakers that was actually much more lopsided than the score.

It was a familiar story for Wildcat fans this year
– the Cats actually were in the game at halftime, just like they were at Penn State and Wisconsin the previous Big Ten games. But the second half saw virtually zero offense and a tired defense that eventually crumbled as the floodgates opened and routs ensued to lead to an 0-3 Big Ten start.

The defense looked frustrated, the receivers who kept running routes downfield for naught showed frustration and the fans became downright furious – and rightly so – at offensive playcalling that basically seemed to alternate between quarterback draws and screen passes all day. And while I never condone booing amateur student athletes and have preached patience with this young coaching staff in this transition year – the chorus of boos for the offensive offensive series from the second quarter on was well deserved.

The beautiful, crisp autumn day in Evanston actually began promising despite a couple of lackluster tackles by the defense on Purdue's opening drive. The Boilers moved the ball in small chunks downfield as they would all day, but a chip-shot field goal attempt went further vertically than horizontally and missed, giving the Cats life and the ball.

Our first offensive series was a thing of beauty – it may have been scripted, but it certainly didn't seem to be scripted by the same coaches who called the rest of the game. It effectively different types of runs, a screen pass and even featured a beautiful deep ball from Andrew Brewer to Shaun Herbert to set up the opening touchdown by Brandon Roberson.

But that would be it for the NU offense on the day. The second possession ended on an interception where Brewer was asked to roll out against his body, then twist around and throw and it sailed away. An interception generated by the Cats defense led to an impressive 43-yard field goal by Joel Howells into the same windy end zone where Purdue's kicker missed a chip shot, but after getting the ball in Boiler territory, we should have scored six.

As for the defense, they gave up huge amounts of yardage in small chunks as Purdue consistently nickel and dimed down the field - sometimes missing scoring chances with bad kicks or turnovers, but converting enough to head into halftime with a 17-10 lead. They added another touchdown in the third and wrapped up the scoring with a flea-flicker bomb with six minutes remaining to rub a bit of salt in the wound. It wasn't the best day tackling or yardage wise … or covering slant routes over the middle, but the defense did show a few blitz packages and covered the fade route well. The time of possession wasn't big in Purdue's favor because they went out of bounds a lot, but as far as time on the field, the NU defense had to have been on the field more than two-thirds of the game and the fatigue showed at the end.

But it was the offense that drew the ire of the fans and showed little signs of progressing after that opening drive. The offensive line continued to be the biggest disappointment of the year, failing to block downfield on a couple of well set up screens and allowing constant pressure and a blindside hit untouched on Brewer. But it was the playcalling that was particularly maddening. The screens would not work – Purdue's defense is somewhat fast, but not Buckeye-fast, yet we kept going to that well long after it became obvious that our linemen couldn't block the Boilers on the play.

And there were so many quarterback draws today that it was reminiscent of the Ron Meyer era – Brewer is a tough kid and has a lot of guts, but if he keeps taking the beating he's getting game after game, he won't last until November. Some of the fault may lie with Brewer pulling it down early under pressure, but most seemed to be called. And there were no deep passes (or even medium passes) after that first drive. Receivers looked upset that they were constantly working against single coverage and open downfield but never getting a chance.

A series that typified the day for the Cats offense was their final one of the first half. It seemed like after long drives in the first quarter both ways (and no punts), each team had the ball 20 times in the final 10:00 of the second quarter. Despite having field position around midfield thanks to kick interference and all timeouts left, the Cats tried draws on 2nd and 9 and 3rd and 5 and punted. Purdue got it back on their own 14 with a minute left but didn't sit on it. A few passes later, they had a field goal. They wanted it more and they got it.

I'm not saying throw all the time, but we didn't even seem to try a throw after the first drive except those screens that just were not working. As a friend of mine sitting next to me said, "is John Schoop back and calling the plays?" If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing that fails again and again and expecting different results, then our playcalling on Saturday was utterly insane.

It got worse from there. After being down 17-10 at half, the Cats came out of the locker room with the ball and ran a pitch, a QB draw and then failed to even touch Purdue's top pass rusher on 3rd and 5 as he blindsided Brewer in what could easily have been a fumble. And down 24-10 heading into the fourth, the Cats were still miraculously in the game despite a huge day of yardage for Purdue and a 54-yard run by Sutton set up the Cats at the Purdue 25.

The Cats followed with two straight runs up the gut for nothing and then ran a painful 3rd and 10 play that combined not only the failed screen pass idea of the day but also had Brewer roll out and throw against his body for a loss of four. And what was a 1st and 10 at the 25 turned in to a 42-yard field goal attempt … that turned into a 47-yard attempt after a delay of game … that turned into a 52-yard attempt that was nixed for a punt after a SECOND straight delay of game. WAKE UP COACHES!

And Tyrell Sutton was again sorely underused. I don't know if he's been in Fitz' doghouse or there's another reason, but he's just not getting the carries this year. And as he showed with that 54-yard burst where he single-handedly seemed to fight off the Purdue team, he's still a threat to go all the way on every carry. So in the words of some SC flunkie we'd rather forget in Evanston, just give Tyrell the bleepin' ball already! If anyone's gonna get 20 carries up the gut in purple, better #19 than a quarterback.

* Joel Howells. Not many options today, so the one game ball goes to the guy who shocked me and kicked a 43-yard field goal into the swirling wind that caused Purdue to miss two gimmes at that same goalpost. Overall, not a bad day for special teams as our kick and punt coverage made tackles right away and kickoffs were deep. The one bad spot – and it was BAD – was the punting game. These were knuckleball quacks with the hangtime of an elephant on a trapeze wire. Yes, one was downed at the 3, but that was more the coverage than the kick.
* Play calling. Play calling. Play calling. If they put nine in the box, you need to pass. And a screen for –2 does not count. And a draw may catch the offense by surprise once or twice, but not on EVERY second-and-long or third-and-long. A play action fake or a fake draw-to-pullback and pass down the middle would have been BIG since every Boilermaker seemed to be heading toward the line of scrimmage at the snap. Sooner or later the training wheels have to come off and you have to let the freshman QB throw. The midway mark in the season might be a good time for that.

* Where's Tyrell? Get the reigning freshman of the year the ball. Jordan may make for a good breather or short-yardage back, but there's no way that we should keep neglecting this fine talent for quarterback draw after quarterback draw. Yes, we have three quarterbacks, but if you keep feeding them to the wolves, we'll be down to one in a hurry.

* Offensive line play. This is the biggest disappointment of the year so far. And they're not getting better at run blocking or pass protecting … and it didn't even look like they had practiced blocking on the screen. Someone's gotta protect our young quarterback and that's SUPPOSED to be the line. Get together and start working as one.
* It should be pretty clear now that the Big Ten has the top two teams in the land. Michigan wins without Manningham in a frenzied Happy Valley and the Bucks take care of business against the nose-diving Spartans. Unless there's a major upset, that November game should be 11-0 vs. 11-0 and #1 vs. #2 and possibly the biggest Big Game in history.

* Iowa looked like they were a threat to Michigan, but they were just looking ahead to Michigan and got ambushed by Indiana. With MSU, Minnesota and Purdue left, the Hoosiers may even begin to utter the B-word in a couple weeks.

* While Iowa has fallen, the biggest darkhorse left is the one in Badger clothing. Wisconsin rolled over a reeling Gopher squad and could run the table with no OSU on the schedule to finish 11-1. They played Michigan tough but have been forgotten since – but don't overlook them in the title talk if the big two stumble and they'll certainly be a BCS contender if they win out and the hordes of Cheeseheads – trying to forget a dismal Packer season – wave big ticket sales in front of the bowl officials.

* So much for Illinois' rebirth … a heartbreaking loss to Indiana followed by a loss to Ohio? Ouch.
I saw a lot of effort on our defense and special teams today … and a lot of heart from some members of the offense, especially Brewer and Sutton … and a lot of promise from that opening drive. But the Cats were really let down by the O-line and coaching staff today. Homecoming is winnable with MSU in turmoil … but we have to get a big-time change in the coaching calls to give the team a chance. No more kid gloves – let the frosh try and fail or try and succeed, just let ‘em try something other than a draw or screen that DID NOT WORK ANY OF THE TWENTY FIVE OTHER TIMES IT WAS CALLED TODAY!

I don't blame the receivers for their frustration, nor the fans. This was a frustrating game that we were still in for most of the second half but never seemed to try to win. Granted it would have been tough to repeat the Iowa game last year without Baz, but the setup was similar to that game except we didn't try and snatch it away at the end and it seemed like our players' hands were tied by the coaches.


Stephen J. Truog, former NU Marching Band member and now educator in Arizona, comments on the Wildcats from both the sidelines and his couch
He has his own NU oriented Web Site - Visit SjTonline

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