Northwestern and Illinois met for the 100th time in Ryan Field for the Sweet Sioux trophy between the in-state rivals.
Illinois has a slight lead in the overall series, but the Cats have gotten the better of their downstate foes lately, winning 7
of the last 11 and three in a row. Both teams entered Saturday out of the bowl hunt, but with young stars on offense and improvement on the
season that had both fans anticipating the 2007 season and looking to the 2006 rivalry game to serve as a springboard for the future.
Momentum plays a big role for young teams, and a play or two can change the face of a game. Illinois seemed to have the early edge with a Wildcat fumble, but when
the Wildcat D held and an Illini field goal attempt doinked off the left upright in the south end zone, ole' lady Mo was wearing a purple dress.
The Cats dominated the rest of the first quarter,
running and passing all over the field for short
chunks of yardage and marching to a 14-0 lead. The Illini couldn't get anything going against the NU defense, and despite a 73-yard kickoff return after the Cats first TD, a fumble by quarterback Juice Williams kept the shutout alive and Northwestern answered with their second touchdown drive.
But just like the big return after the first TD,
Illinois had an answer and following the second TD, Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall raced 86 yards up the gut on the first play of their series to cut the deficit in half. Suddenly the fickle Madame Mo had swapped colors.
A poor kickoff return by NU started the Cats deep and apparently the O-line didn't get the memo that we were back on offense, because the
next two plays were a –5 yard rush and a QB sack that both saw orange defenders in the backfield almost before the snap. The third play was a
safety and suddenly, despite a solid showing save for one play by the D, it was 14-9 NU.
The Wildcats looked to have stopped the change in
momentum by holding after the free kick, but a fumble by Terrell Jordan after we crossed midfield and BAM! The Illini hit a 47-yard pass on beautiful play-action and score the next play to go up 16-14.
With two minutes left in a half they had dominated statistically, the Cats suddenly found themselves down 16-14 and the fans in orange were
doing that annoying I-L-L chant. Turnovers and big plays were killing the Cats … but one big area of improvement this year for Northwestern
was the lack of stupid penalties, and that turned out to be something the young and talented Illini have not mastered yet. A couple stupid late hits and interference calls kept NU drives alive and one of those happened toward the end of the half, allowing C.J. Bacher and the Cats to drive down the field and get a Joel Howells kick before half to head to the locker room with a 17-16 lead.
A quick side note on halftime. As a former member of the Northwestern University Marching Band (NUMB), the final home halftime show is always special for me, as I watch the departing seniors honored and appreciate and participate in the thankful acknowledgement of the
crowd for the NUMBers' years of pride and guts in
supporting our team win or lose. Well, not only was NUMB fantastic in bringing back their top-notch George Gershwin halftime show, but it was also slyly funny to see "Rhapsody in Blue" played at halftime on American Airlines Day at Ryan Field. I'm sure the United Airlines execs were smiling. Take that corporate sponsors! But anyway, Senior Day is is't just a day to thank our senior gridiron players for all that they've
done for NU, but the cheerleaders, mascots, band
members and everyone else who helps make college
football a unique and special experience for fans.
After the break, Coach Fitzgerald came out of the
locker room with a call that would have made his
mentor Randy Walker proud. The second halves of the past three UI-NU games have been purple-powered domination as the Cats' running game took over to clinch the victories. Sensing the momentum still on the side of the orange and blue, Fitz began the second half with an onside kick that caught Illinois napping.
But stubborn Ms. Mo didn't want to change sides fully yet, and the recovered onside kick appeared to be for naught when it was 4th and 4 at the Illinois 36. But Fitz went for it, and two plays later, Tyrell Sutton was in the end zone for a 24-16 Wildcat lead and we had brought momentum back to our side for good.
The rest of the second half saw some outstanding play from the Wildcat defense, limiting the Illini to 84
yards in the second half. Illinois had five series in
the second half, and only one saw the orange and blue
get a first down. Some of the help came from Illinois' receivers, who
dropped a few passes right in the hands, but the pressure, coverage and
intensity of the NU D was huge, holding firm on 4th and 2 and 4th and 7
on the final two series for Illinois.
The same cannot be said of the NU offense. After going
up 24-16 and with the defensive stops, virtually all
of the second half was played in Illinois' territory.
But the drives stalled at midfield, the Illinois 34
and the Illinois 34 again. It wasn't until the Illini
botched a punt near midfield and then committed a big
penalty on the ensuing drive that the Cats finally
iced the game with a 22-yard field goal from Howells.
Illinois has a lot of young talent and will be a team
to reckon with the next couple years as Coach Zook's
recruiting efforts pay off. But ill-timed penalties
and missed opportunities overcame a bunch of gifts
from Northwestern and the clock tower will remain
purple for another year. They're a load to tackle
though, and Juice Williams is a playmaker at
quarterback, so despite the ugliness of the game at
times, this was a hard-earned win.
As for the Cats, this was a game they dominated
statistically, doubling Illinois in time of
possession, more than tripling their first down and
winning the field position war all day. Yet they
almost gave it away with turnovers, allowing big plays
and a lack of aggressiveness late to put a nail in the
coffin. Still, it's a win over the in-state rival and
coupled with the win over Iowa and the much improved
offensive and defensive play in the last month,
there's plenty of reason to be optimistic for the
future in Evanston.
THINGS TO WORK ON
- Tyrell Sutton and C.J. Bacher. You have to put the
two together because they complement each other so
much. Sutton topped 1,000 yards for the second
straight year, and that didn't look like it would
happen at midseason. Enter Bacher and a solid passing
game and it's amazing how much the running lanes open
up. It'll be good to have these two in the backfield
from the start next year.
- The Defense. Aside from a couple of big plays, these
guys were getting pressure, forcing 3-and-outs and
hustling their butts off all day. Good to see the
Joel Howells. Special teams have been a sore spot
for NU lately, and punts and return coverage were bad
today. But Howells made two big field goals today –
one to stop UI momentum and head into halftime with a
lead and another to ice the game – on a day with
swirling wins and a cold, rock-like ball. Not always
pretty, but effective. He's taken heat for losses, so
time for some props in a win.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
- Hang on to the gosh-darn ball! It wasn't as bad as the 28 points we gift-wrapped for Ohio State last
week, but we still gave the Illini a couple chances to
take the game from us and really need to work on
turnovers for next year.
- The Big Play. The defense did a fine job of forcing 3-and-outs and
bottling up 95% of the plays, but when the Illini struck big – on a run
up the gut or a play-action pass – we didn't seem to have much left in
the second wave to stop a first down play from becoming a big play.
Still, better to get pressure and get burned than to sit back and wait
to be picked apart I guess.
- Finish ‘em off. Despite NU dominance and playing
virtually the entire second half in Illinois
territory, this was a one-possession game until the
final minutes. We went for the jugular after the half
on the onside kick and 4th down call, but we grew
* Heck of a game in Columbus. OHIO STATE is #1, Jim
Tressel is one helluva coach and Troy Smith is one
outstanding player. But those MICHIGAN players may get
another shot in seven weeks in Arizona.
* WISCONSIN may not get a BCS bid, but could finish in
the top five with a win in Orlando to cap a 12-1
season. Not bad for a new coach. Of course, Barry
didn't exactly leave this program in disarray either.
* MINNESOTA made a nice rally to end the season
bowl-eligible after a tough start. IOWA on the other
hand is really backing into a bowl. If there's
justice, the Gophers get the higher bowl in Orlando
while the Hawkeyes head to Phoenix.
* PURDUE solidified their hold on the Alamo Bowl spot
and in the process ended INDIANA's run to a bowl game.
Too bad for IU, as it'd have been a nice step for the
program. But like NU and UI, the Hoosiers are on the
rise and proving to be a tough out this year. As for
Purdue, they still have that island-trap game at
Hawaii before the bowl game.
* PENN STATE's offense really struggled, as they have
all season, but the D was strong enough to send John
L. packing with a loss … looks like the Nittany Lions
will be back in Florida for a January bowl – this time
Checking the crystal ball for the latest postseason
- BCS TITLE GAME: Ohio State vs. USC -The voters (and that endless push from Fox you already
saw on the NFL games today) will probably doom a
rematch, even if it's clear Michigan is #2. An SC win
over the Irish and they get a shot at the Bucks in a
Rose Bowl away from the Rose Bowl.
- ROSE: Michigan vs. Arkansas
Speaking of the Granddaddy, they'll gladly take
Michigan … but by losing both their conference champs
to the title game, they could get shafted for the
second slot. Normally, the first pick bowl would
gobble Notre Dame up faster than turkey on Thursday,
but they won't want a rematch of Big Blue's
butt-kicking in South Bend. So they're left with Boise State, the ACC/Big Least champ or an SEC team. Pig
Sooey baby! And if the Razorbacks win the SEC title, Michigan-Florida would be a heck of a game as well.
- SUGAR: Florida vs. Notre Dame
With the Irish out of the Roses, the Sugar will snatch
‘em up against the winner of the Arkansas-Florida
- ORANGE: Georgia Tech vs. Louisville
No one really knows who will win muddled Big Least and
ACC races, but the chances are looking good that they
will be pitted against each other in Miami.
- FIESTA: Texas vs. Boise State
Unless the voters put as much pull into avoiding an
undeserving Boise State entry into the BCS as they're
putting into avoiding a title game rematch, we're
gonna have an ugly one here in the Nacho Bowl.
- CITRUS: Wisconsin vs. Tennessee
Folks in Florida won't want a rematch of last year's
upset where the Badgers popped Auburn in the mouth a
few times and the Tigers turned to Kittens. So bring
on the Vols and expose the Cheeseheads to the
experience of hearing Rocky Top 20,000 times in a
game! Besides, you can't spell Citrus without UT,
- OUTBACK: Penn State vs. Auburn
Interesting to see who the folks in Tampa place
against the Nits here. The Cotton would probably
rather have LSU over than the Tigers, and the Peach
might prefer UGa or Spurrier State, so Auburn could
slip here. Which might be good news for PSU, who has a
fine defense but not much of an offense.
- ALAMO: Purdue vs. Texas A&M
It'd be fun to see Texas Tech vs. Tiller here in a
shootout, but the Aggies have some local pull and will
help sell tickets better.
- CHAMPS: Minnesota vs. Florida State
Interesting to see what happens here. Minny should be
the Big Ten rep because they beat Iowa and the Hawks
have tanked it to end the year. But the ACC has so
many teams at the top who have better records but
don't have the name or pull of Florida State in
- INSIGHT: Iowa vs. Missouri
Phoenix gets a decent rivalry matchup here as two
teams who had bigger hopes in midseason settle for a
week in the Valley of the Sun and a minor bowl.
Last year at this time, the word was consistency.
Coming off the jubilant comeback against Iowa on
Senior Day and marking yet another 6-win season and
bowl trip under Randy Walker, the Cats were becoming a consistent
winner. But that was torn apart in the off season – part of it was
graduation and losing leaders like Brett Basanez and Tim McGarrigle,
while part of it was cruel fate with Coach Walker's death and, to a
much lesser extent, C.J. Bacher's injury.
But Coach Fitz stepped in and after a rough start and
utterly devastating loss to MSU, pulled his team
together and proved that he is our man on the
sidelines for the future by beating rivals Illinois
and Iowa and, save for those darn turnovers, competing
with #1 OSU and #2 Michigan in the final month of the
season. The word this season finale is hope. With much
of the offense and defense returning next year, Cat
fans expect nothing less than a return to the bowl
scene and Coach Fitz wouldn't have it any other way.
Thank you seniors for all you have done for
Northwestern - helping lay the foundation for the
program and refusing to let a heartbreaking loss and
season turmoil rip that apart. THANK YOU SENIORS!!!
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 -
You can send your direct
comments or "back door" information
directly to Coach
Roy [CoachRoy74 on AIM]
[or comment on the Purple
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Items Copyright 2006 by
Stephen J. Truog
and PurpleWildcats/Purple Reign
Young teams have a habit of being streaky, inconsistent and mistake prone. All of those tendencies were on display Saturday in Evanston as two young and improving Big Ten teams met in a game that was not pretty, but ultimately was satisfying for the home fans.
Steve watched Saturday and didn't lake that he saw, but that win, in the end, was most satisfying...