Former Northwestern coach Randy Walker used to have a favorite slogan: finish.
Walker’s Wildcat teams rallied around that mantra again and again, coming from behind to win games over countless Big Ten foes that
thought they had the Cats beaten. How sad that when the Wildcats sprinted to a unseen humongous lead on Saturday against Michigan State that the NU players and coaches couldn’t follow their departed mentor’s words and finish the job.
I guess what goes around comes around and after witnessing all those last-second rallies by the Cats during the years – including a rather
miraculous 27-26 win over Sparty in 2001 – it was time for the Evanston faithful to experience the other side of the coin.
It was a reversal of fortune for MSU as well, who let a huge lead against Notre Dame slip away earlier this year at home but became the first division I-A team to rally from a 35-point deficit against NU on Saturday, scoring 38 unanswered second-half points to turn a 38-3 hole into a 41-38 triumph. So maybe here was some karma coming around to bite the Cats in the rear, but did it have to happen on homecoming?
Blowing a 38-3 third-quarter lead in front of the alumni? Inexcusable. Heartbreaking. Devastating. And as the stunned homecoming crowd watched
the events unfold on Saturday, they all seemed to have the same question: why go to a prevent defense in the middle of the third quarter?
After defending the D all season and calling for the offensive playbook to be opened, the trend of opposites continued Saturday as the Wildcat
offense exploded and looked very much like the machine of last year while this loss falls squarely on the defensive players and coaches.
And the kicker is you never even saw this coming at halftime … or five minutes into the third quarter for that matter. The tale of two halves
was a dream for NU fans in the first but a nightmare in the second. Give Michigan State credit for defying their rep and not quitting … but this was also a tale of collapse on a record scale by the Cats. MSU made some plays, but it was more about the plays the Cats didn’t make.
The vultures were circling in the first half though. Well, maybe they were seagulls, but it was still looking like an open when a couple
dozen birds began circling around head coach John L. Smith and the MSU sideline in the second quarter. Sparty could do nothing right, failing
to move the ball, surrendering huge chunks of yardage on D and down 24-3.
The fans spelled out “FIRE JOHN L” and it looked very much like the MSU team folks had come to expect recently, phoning it in – the big
question was whether Smith would even make the trip back on the team bus or be fired at halftime.
The story on the opposite sideline was anything but what fans had come to expect this season. What a difference a quarterback makes to this
offense! Sophomore C.J. Bacher was back from injury and played a near flawless first half – hitting the slant, throwing a deep ball or two,
standing in the pocket to take a big hit but deliver the ball. It all opened the running lanes up by keeping defenses honest and made the NU
offense into something that resembled what Brett Basanez directed the last few years in Evanston.
The receivers, especially Shaun Herbert and Ross Lane, really seemed to appreciate being involved in the offense again and made some nice
plays. The Wildcats scored on their first four possessions, driving 71, 74 and 88 yards for touchdowns and adding a field goal. About the only
thing that went wrong was failing to get the touchdown in the red zone at the end of the half and then missing the field goal to let MSU off
the hook trailing only 24-3 in a half where – aside from MSU’s initial series and field goal – they were completely and utterly dominated by
The second half began to look like more of the same. A 3-and-out by NU and a punt return to change the game for MSU blew apart in one “typical
Sparty” play when wet grass tackled the punt returner yards from the end zone and it was all for naught anyway because Sparty roughed the
punter. A couple plays later (including a nifty tipped pass for big yardage by Eric Peterman), NU seized their chance and was in the end zone and it was 31-3. The one downside of the punt play was that defensive leader Nick Roach was taken off the field with a broken leg. It didn’t seem like it could hurt us at the time, but would play a role
later as Roach’s leadership and hustle were sorely missed.
Marquis Cole intercepted MSU on the next series and set up another TD pass for Herbert and it was 38-3 Wildcats with 9:54 remaining. Midway
through the third, it was still 38-3 when everything came apart. Senior MSU quarterback Drew Stanton took advantage of soft coverage to
nickel-and-dime down the field for a score to make it 38-10 with 7:03 left in the third. Another zip drive down the field after an NU 3-and-out made it 38-17 with 2:47 to go in the third and this is when the first inkling of the impending disaster came. Yes, the offense got a bit conservative – but it was still working, as evidenced by Tyrell Sutton’s burst up the middle for 64 yards the next series to put the Cats in the red zone.
But two NU receivers collided on Bacher’s pass to the end zone (and Bacher was also knicked) and a chance for a 45-17 lead slipped away.
The defense showed signs of the collapse with a questionable late hit on Stanton that put the QB out a couple series, but fired up the Spartans. Brendon Smith baited Stanton’s replacement into a pick to calm fears for awhile, but the offense struggled all day on 3rd and short and after failing to pick up a first down after the pickoff, a high snap on the Wildcat punt led to a block and return that made the score 38-24 with 11:22 remaining in the fourth and the Green and White
were starting to believe.
A poor kick return decision had the Cats starting their next possession inside the 10 and after failing to generate a first, it was another
punt – this time from the end zone. Stanton returned from the injury to zip down the field against more soft defense to score on a run with
7:54 to go, making it 38-31. With less than 7 minutes to go, the Cats again failed to convert a 3rd and short and Stanton and the Spartans
moved with ease downfield to score with 3:43 remaining.
The collapse was complete when a poor return started the Cats deep and Bacher’s deep throw – more like a loft and nothing like the crisp
slants he had been throwing – was picked off. MSU converted their key 3rd and short, ran down the clock and kicked the chip shot field goal with
seconds left to complete the new record for NCAA I-A comeback.
The green faithful who remained in the stands in Evanston didn’t even care that this might allow John L. Smith to keep his job and celebrated
the amazing win with their team (after the Spartans tried to dance at midfield but were quickly redirected to their fans by the coaches –
smart move after previous incidents with MSU and midfield at Notre Dame and vs. Illinois).
Northwestern had won virtually every aspect of the game except the final score. It was a game they dominated and should have easily won, but forgot to finish. Unlike last week, this one is squarely on defensive coordinator Greg Colby’s shoulders. Yes, the offense didn’t do much late – but there’s no way you should lose when you win the turnover battle, win time of possession and have a 35-point lead with a quarter and a half remaining.
We played soft instead of playing to win and a senior quarterback like Stanton (and even their backup when Stanton was hurt for a bit) just
picked the defense apart. For most teams, being up by 35 means its time to pin the ears back and blitz a bit without worrying about the run –
and MSU only had 91 net yards rushing. But we played not to lose and wound up with one of the more heartbreaking defeats in recent NU memory, especially after the day began with so much promise.
* C.J. Bacher. We have our quarterback! And the good news is that Bacher will be around for a couple more years and should really grow into the offensive leader role the last month of the season. Bacher essentially did more in one half of football passing than NU had done in the first six games through the air. Four TD passes, staying in to take the hit while delivering his first TD, running when proper … he was a lot of fun to watch. He went a bit cold
at the end, but it shouldn’t have mattered. The running game was working and we had a huge lead – maybe a few more slants instead of deep chucks late, but that’s not CJ’s fault.
THINGS TO WORK ON
* Tyrell Sutton. Even when he has a hurting collarbone, this kid is special and a joy to watch. We gave Sutton 21 carries and he
responded with 171 yards and an 8.1 average per play – when the opposing D is kept honest by a good quarterback, Sutton can really put
up some big numbers.
* Ross Lane. Herbert and Peterman had good games as well, but Lane was really the catalyst on the early drives and with Herbert’s hands and Lane’s height, we had a nice 1-2 punch at wideout and Bacher knew how to use it.
* FINISH. No excuse for blowing a 35-point lead. Especially when we’ve seen other teams do it against our O in the past. You have to finish your foe off.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
* Defensive play calling. The offense opened the book this week and showed what can happen when you take chances. The D sat on a lead and hoped prevent would be enough and it was a nightmare. Something’s gotta change here.
* Special teams. A missed field goal. A blocked punt. A couple poor kickoff returns to start us off in bad field position. Bad snaps
all around. Win this portion of the game and we win despite a soft D.
* Ohio State and Michigan are now clear for a mammoth November showdown in the Shoe between unbeaten #1 and #2 barring a major, MAJOR upset. It will be interesting to see if the game is close and other breaks happen if they meet again in Arizona in January for all the marbles.
* Another solid win by Wisconsin, who is quietly 7-1. The way the cheeseheads travel to support their team, it’s going to be hard for a
BCS bowl to ignore them if they finish 11-1. Where’s the love from the polls though?
* Not a great win over North Dakota State for Minnesota – Sparty showed fight but the Gophers appear to have packed it in for the season.
* It wasn’t pretty, but Penn State avoided a hangover loss after that tough defeat to Michigan to move to 5-3. They visit Camp Randall in a
couple weeks, which could be a huge game for the Florida bowls to watch.
Such an awesome start, such a horrible finish. Hopefully the Cats aren’t as devastated as the fans because the next three games are brutal, but we can do a lot to build toward next year by working around Bacher being our man at quarterback and we certainly have enough to beat Illinois. Heck, if the defense had been able to hold on to a
35-point lead, we’d be asking how many games we could have won this year with a healthy Bacher (at least two, IMO).
But instead we’re left with homecoming horror and trying to pick up the pieces from an epic choke by a team known for amazing comebacks … to a team known more for chokes and packing it in. Maybe we entered a bizarre would this week. Whatever it is, it just plain old stinks.
Stephen J. Truog, former NU Marching Band member and now educator in Arizona, comments on the Wildcats from both the sidelines and his couch
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