SjT View from the Stands

(No that's not Truog on the sidelines...)

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.

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.
  • 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 improved effort.
  •   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.
  • 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 timid later.
 * 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 in Tampa.
BOWL PICTURE Checking the crystal ball for the latest postseason picks …
  • 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 game.
  • 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, right Phil?
  • 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 Orlando.
  • 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 - Visit SjTonline

You can send your direct comments or "back door" information directly to Coach Roy [CoachRoy74 on AIM] [or comment on the Purple Boards]
Go Cats Beat 'em All
Talk about it on the Purple Boards [Click Here]
All Items Copyright 2006 by Stephen J. Truog and PurpleWildcats/Purple Reign Recommended Stories

Up Next


94 Fans online
    Join The Conversation