It just wouldn't be homecoming at Northwestern with some
kind of crazy comeback.
And it wouldn't be a Northwestern game, period, without a frenzied finish.
And after last year, we were due.
Maybe it's just something about being down 35-14 to Minnesota that leads to wild wins for the Wildcats, as homecoming 2007 ended happily for the purple-clad NU faithful with a thrilling 49-48 double overtime win over Minnesota.
As with last week's OT win at Michigan State, the much-needed victory erases all kinds of woes, and there were plenty for the purple this week … atrocious special teams that, frankly, were a shock after improved play most of this year … a porous defense that saw some great individual efforts rise above another poorly planned scheme … and most disappointing of all until the final quarter, an offense that looked dominant between the 20s but couldn't capitalize on many opportunities to put this game away early.
But that's all for the film sessions and game plans of the future. What mattered is that when the Cats needed him, C.J. Bacher again showed signs of maturing into a true leader quarterback in the likes of Basanez and Kustok in this Northwestern spread offense. With calm confidence and pistol precision, Bacher did what he could not do earlier in this season against Duke. With fourth down and quite possibly the season on the line, he delivered the rally-capping touchdown to help salvage what could have been another homecoming horror story for Northwestern.
For a while there, it looked like a repeat of last year's homecoming except this time, NU only got a quarter to enjoy themselves before a collapse. Things started well after the teams exchanged 3-and-outs with the Cats finding their rhythm and easily moving the ball down the field on their second possession for a 7-0 lead.
Then things got better. Goal line stand. Two words that Wildcat fans probably thought they might never utter again after the 1995 Wisconsin victory. But after giving the Gophers a short field, four tries inside the five and three attempts at the one yard line … the NU defense thrilled the student section with three straight stuffs in that same north end zone where the Wisconsin game ended to get the ball back and keep the 7-0 lead. Better yet … the Cats mounted a
90+ yard drive following the stand but stalled inside the other five yard line.
But here's where the game took a strange turn like the MSU game last year did. A chip shot field goal doinked off the goal post and even though the Wildcats had thoroughly dominated the first quarter and a half, they only had a 7-0 lead to show for it. Suddenly, the Gophers realized that they were still miraculously in this game and started attacking with their mobile quarterback. Before you could say ski-u-mah, Minnesota was up 14-7 and even though the Cats got a jump ball touchdown near the end of the half to tie it, the Gophers marched down to add another score before halftime, thanks to sloppy special teams play and an inexplicable kick out of bounds for a short field with a minute left.
So the halftime score was 21-14 Goldie, and not even a minute elapsed in the third quarter before the Gophers added another touchdown. Again, an out of bounds kickoff to start the half gave Minny excellent starting field position.
Again, NU moved the ball well but saw drives result in another missed chip shot field goal and a fumble near the red zone. These led to yet another drive of big plays for Minnesota and a touchdown for a 35-14 lead.
Sure, Northwestern fans were reminded this week of the thrilling 2000 "Victory Right" comeback against Minnesota to win 41-35, rallying from a 35-14 deficit in the second half. But things were looking bleak. The offense was wasting red zone opportunities, the special teams were in disarray and despite some fire early from the defense, we were giving up gobs of yards in the second and third quarters.
But then C.J. Bacher rallied the purple faithful into a frenzy with a masterful comeback that deserves to be placed alongside that Kustok classic in 2000. He had a lot of help from what has to be the best stable of wide receivers NU has had in awhile. Ross Lane has become a touchdown machine with some of the surest hands in the nation. Not far behind him in that category is Eric Peterman, who is starting to remind NU fans of Brian Musso with those fearless snags across the middle. Kim Thompson also showed up big-time today. Yarborough and Ward have added speed and shown improvement. And best of all, after years of seeming banishment from the NU playbook, the screen is back! We may not have perfected getting the blockers out in front yet, but the amount of screen plays in the past three weeks on offense has to outnumber our screens in the past three seasons.
And Bacher has become a master at getting all of these receiving weapons – as well as his running backs Conteh and Roberson – involved and mixing it up well.
Two nice touchdown drives and two nifty turnovers forced by the defense later and the Cats are within a score at 35-28. But we can't convert third down with 6:00 left and punt. The defense struggled the first couple tries, but finally forced fourth down and we got one last chance with Bacher running the two-minute drill with one timeout. Like the Duke game, it came down to fourth and goal in the south end zone. But this time, Bacher found Peterman with a laser between two defenders in the corner of the end zone to tie it.
It was as perfect a pass as you'll see and it was exactly where it had to be. One inch in any direction and Minnesota wins. Instead, we go to overtime.
The Gophers played in two overtime games to start the season and NU was coming off the OT win last week in East Lansing, so neither team seemed intimidated even though momentum was clearly wearing purple. Minny struck first, NU answered. Not surprising given both teams' porous defenses – though the Cats needed a big fourth down conversion from – guess who – Lane before
#9 scored his second TD of the game to tie it. NU drove and scored in the second OT and Minnesota answered. Opting to go for the win, Minny lined up for two when the Cats got nice pressure and forced the incompletion. Happy homecoming, Cats win!
It was a game we should have blown open 21-0 early and coasted to victory in. Then it turned into a game where we were getting blown out, couldn't stop Minnesota and had no business winning. But it ended – as so many NU games have in the last decade or so – with a wild Wildcat win. There were a lot of things we did wrong, but when C.J. and the offense are on, it all seems right in the end. I believe NU is now 7-0 in Big Ten overtime games and our record in games decided by a score or less is among the top 2-3 in the nation in the past decade, so sooner or later that has to stop being called lucky and start being chalked up to incredible heart, desire and a never-give-up attitude.
Before we get to the game balls, a quick word on our opponent's fans today. Aside from Indiana, Minnesota probably brings the least amount of fans to their games at Ryan Field. However, they have always seemed to me to be the best opposing fans in the Big Ten.
It's not the size that matters, but the spirit. Gopher fans do not come into our stadium all arrogant, expecting us to bow down and revel in their awesomeness as some visitors do. And they're not overbearingly obnoxious as other fans (we all know which three schools I'm talking about) are in Evanston. But that doesn't mean they're quiet. They make a lot of noise, support their team through thick and thin and show a great amount of class, spirit and sportsmanship. As a NUMBalum, I appreciate that heart and pride to be a true fan no matter what the score and no matter whether you have 500 fans in attendance or 25,000. Once Minnesota gets their on-campus stadium and escapes that dreadful dome, I think they'll have a heck of a home field advantage.
Also, maybe it was the alums on campus for homecoming or drawing inspiration from the fans in maroon and gold, but NU's student section was as active as I've seen in awhile. Singing along with the school song, making some noise and just being great fans. So were the rest of the folks in purple. The stadium wasn't too full, but it was loud and full of frenzied fans that were rightfully treated to a fantastic finish.
Well done all around! Now to the game balls …
* C.J. Bacher. Almost 1000 yards in two weeks. Two masterful performances. He is looking every bit the worthy successor to Baz and is starting to lead this team with confidence and outstanding play. Well done, #18!
* Ross Lane. As a simple rule, when you're inside the
9 yard line, find out where #9 in purple is. All Lane does? Catch touchdowns! Actually, he does a heck of a lot more, including some nice blocking on screens that our other wideouts could learn from.
* The refs. Just kidding. I couldn't really think of a third off hand because I don't want to give the entire offense one because of their ineffectiveness in the red zone in the first three quarters. Meanwhile, we had one series where a Lane was tripped up on a deep pass from Bacher and the flag flew in. It looked like our friends in stripes would call interference, but after a conference, I figured they'd just pick the flag up and chalk it up to incidental contact as the legs got tangled. But the call they came up with was offensive interference? It still baffles me. But overall, the refs weren't in the way of either offense, so a somewhat mock, somewhat not bravo.
* OK, for real, third game ball to the fans. As I explained above this was good old-fashioned fanaticism on all sides. Sportsmanlike, but spirited. I think it was telling that neither team seemed to want to do overtime in the north end zone – where the NU students and Gopher fans were on opposite sides and making a lot of noise despite small numbers.
THINGS TO WORK ON
* Defense. We had some great individual efforts. A couple tipped passes, a nice interception, pressure on the two-point try and Corey Wooton's interception to name a few. Not to mention the goal line stand. But overall, it was a case of some individual effort and hustle overcoming another poor game plan. Count me aboard the CanColby.com brigade. And speaking of Wooton, seeing him up close from the band box, it's been a long time since NU has had a defensive lineman with his raw talent. I sure hope we get some of our alums – Matt Rice, Luis Castillo (sans steroids, of course), Casey Daley, etc. – in here this summer to work with Wooten. This kid has the physical skills to be a great one and with some hard work in the off-season, he could have a breakout year next year.
* Special teams. What happened? Doing so well this year until the end of the MSU game and it continued here. Two short field goals missed. Kickoffs out of bounds. UGH! FIX IT!
* Red zone chances. We were moving the ball well between the twenties in the first half and should have put this game away early. We can't play with fire too often by letting teams hang around despite dominating them on offense because we can't put points on the board. It burned us against Duke but we got away with it here.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
* Wow. What a wild weekend. Again. Explain to me again how a playoff would make this any less exciting? It would still be a great regular season plus you'd have more of it with march madness on grass! We may need a playoff to sort out the myriad of 1-loss teams with claims to the BCS title game this year. And as I said, don't count out the Gators. I can already hear Urban Meyer whining, er "lobbying," for Florida to leapfrog teams at the end of the season if they get to the SEC title game and win. Mack Brown's famous politicking to jump Cal for a BCS spot a few years back will look like child's play after this year's jockeying by coaches to get into those top two spots.
* Speaking of coaches who whine, er, "politick" … MICHIGAN is quietly back to their preseason role as the Big Ten favorite. They already beat PSU, they just got done stomping Purdue and Ohio State comes to the Big House for what could be Lloyd Carr's farewell game and what could be a great story of a team that started awful rallying for nine straight wins and playing for a Rose Bowl berth. They still have some tough tests left, though, and they need Mike Hart to be healthy for that stretch run. But still, great story.
* As for Michigan's rival, this year has been classic Tressel so far. After a rare coaching blunder last year in the title game, he has come back focused and relying on defense and a steady O to rise to #1 in the rankings. They have a killer final four games, though.
* And that killer stretch starts with PENN STATE, who finally looked like the team we expected all year in their thrashing of Wisconsin. OSU's toughest hurdle to the BCS title game will likely be their visit to Happy Valley in two weeks for a night game under White Out conditions. Can't wait for that one! As for Bucky, look out below – the Bielema Bandwagon is losing altitude and FAST. He sure wasn't smirking across the sidelines at JoePa as they went to halftime this year … as cranky ole' Joe would say, that's his problem now! All PSU has to be concerned with is winning out.
A 10-2 Lions squad would be BCS bound and might even sneak into Pasadena if the Big Ten home stretch is as wild as the college season has been so far.
* PSU/Wisky was supposed to be for the Big Ten title … but along came ILLINOIS. Sooner or later, the Zookers' youth that cost them the Mizzou game had to show, though, and once again the gold and black opponent uniforms brought it out. Good thing they don't face Purdue. Were they looking ahead to Michigan under the lights? Tough jolt for the Illini fans and a big win for Iowa.
* Speaking of restoring order or reality check, MSU showed that this year may indeed be different … and Indiana showed that this year may not be different … with a Sparty smackdown under the lights.
What does this mean for the wild Big Ten race and bowl picture? Well, it means that as long as Michigan and OSU don't lose focus in upcoming games with the Illini and Badgers (or PSU for the Bucks), that they should once again play for the Big Ten title and automatic BCS bid. Hopefully the league can get two again because we may need it to find a bowl for everyone.
After that? It's a mess. Minny and Iowa are probably the only ones who can plan on being home for the holidays … but both showed that they won't be rolling down for the others trying to earn postseason berths.
As for the Cats, it's nice to be back above .500 and at 2-2 in league play. We need to come out and put EMU away early on Friday to get that fifth win before our final four Big Ten games. None are sure wins, but none are sure defeats either. If C.J. and the offense can stay hot, you have to think NU has a decent chance to go bowling this year. But for now, it's a happy homecoming for the folks in Evanston with a thrilling rally to wipe away the memories of last year's bitter collapse.GO CATS!!!