A punch in the gut.

on NU vs Air Force...Air Force won 22-21 <p>A punch in the Gut...<br><br>That's about the only way to describe this one.

Northwestern fans have experienced more than their fair share of losses over the years - ugly blowouts, "moral victories" and more.
But the last time I can remember feeling this much disgust after a game was 1995's Miami of Ohio letdown. And even that was different because Miami made a heck of a comeback. Today, Northwestern was clearly the better team on the field and played like it for three quarters, but we gave it away.

The day began with great promise. A touchback. A three-down stand by NU's defense. A punt by Air Force. The uniforms were different. The attitude was different. And the folks at Air Force had to be wondering if this was the same team they scored on at will in last year's opener.

Fisher DeBerry wasn't the only one scratching his head -- Wildcat fans wondered where this team had come from as well. They played the option like they knew how to defend it -- penetrating the middle, hitting the QB and making him pitch early, stringing out the plays, etc. They had excellent special teams play (huh? OUR Cats?!) and until that final quarter, this was a Northwestern team that was dominating every aspect of the game.

The Wildcat defense was fired up after last year's embarrassment and they deserved to win this game. They allowed only one scoring drive and fell asleep for only one play (which Air Force promptly turned into a 50+ yard TD run - that's what happens when you take a play off vs. the option). By the middle of the first quarter, the Falcons were resorting to trick plays to try and get some yardage on our defense. The D also forced two fumbles and recovered them. Neither, however, were turned into points by Northwestern's offense.

And the biggest surprise to me was our special teams. My biggest criticism of this coaching regime in comparison to the last one is that they never seem to realize that special teams are a third of the game and can help turn a mediocre team into a contender (see KSU, VaTech). But our teams were truly special against Air Force. We had three touchbacks (and the fourth kickoff was back inside the 5) and three punts downed inside the 10 yard line. Last year, we were better off kicking onsides, since the kickoffs were short and returned to the 40 anyway. We won field position again and again today, The special teams also tipped a field goal and extra point.

Northwestern was clearly superior in two aspects of the game. And until that fateful fourth quarter, we had the edge on offense as well. The Cats sputtered a bit out of the gate, but after falling behind 7-0, the offense dominated the second and third quarters with long scoring drives that had a nice mix of passes, runs, power and misdirection. We came out of the locker room leading 14-7 and promptly drove the opening kickoff down to make it 21-7. This was a different Northwestern team from last year and we owned this game.

So what was the turning point? Well, about midway through the third quarter, our play calling shifted and we started playing not to lose. The passes straight up the middle that were wide open all day were abandoned, as was the play action. Despite the offensive success, the line never really established itself as several Brett Basanez passes were tipped by Air Force pressure, we failed to pick up some blitzes and Jason Wright wasn't able to consistently get on track. He'd lose 3, lose 2, lose 5 and then break off a 23-yard run. We improved short-yardage success, but when we started trying to milk the clock, we were unable to find a running game to play smashmouth football.

But the symbolic change in ole' lady mo' had to come when Basanez lost his head, literally. There was a lot of talking on the field by both sides with some hostilities left over from last year, and I'm sure Brett's outburst wasn't unprevoked (some hits that were pretty close weren't called late -- where were those refs last year?:) ), but you gotta know that you just can't remove your helmet. Brett had one pick in the first half, but that was on a tip. Up to the helmet penalty, he had played a great game, making some smart decisions on the run, throwing more than a few passes in a precise spot that took a lot of skill and running the team well. But he just wasn't the same in the fourth quarter, and the pics came in triplets.

The first was returned for a touchdown to make it 21-19, but the D came up to stop the two-point conversion. The second gave Air Force field position inside the 15, but the defense held 'em to a field goal to make it 21-22 with just over two minutes left. But the third one essentially ended the game, even though the Cats did get one more chance. The interceptions were a big story, yes, but our play calling in the last 20 minutes got too tight and we didn't capitalize earlier on the two turnovers either, so you can't lay it all on Basanez. We also foolishly burned a timeout on that second-to-last drive when the clock was already stopped -- had we kept it, we could have gotten the ball back with a minute or more left after that final pic.

It stings, but we gotta pick it back up. Hopefully this team will respond in the manner of the '95 Cats after that disgusting defeat to Miami. We get those same Redhawks in Ryan Field next weekend and they have a quarterback who can pick any secondary in the nation apart if he has time.

Maybe it's a good sign that this one stings so much -- usually, making up 48 points in a year with both teams essentially returning the same players would be a good sign. And there was a lot to love in the Cats this year. Our defense had heart and hustle. The special teams looked 100 percent better than last year. And the offense looked great at times (oddly, in the two quarters we were going against the wind). But that's exactly why this one is so disgusting -- NU left no doubt who was the better team on the Ryan Field grass today, and they gave it away.
SjT GAME BALLS
  • The entire defense. Take away that one mental lapse with Anthony Butler's 56-yard TD run and this D held every Air Force player to less than 50 yards rushing on the day. Outstanding. At the end of the first half, NU had twice as many plays from scrimmage as Air Force. They deserved to win this game.
  • Brian Huffman. Four of six punts inside the 20, three inside the 10. Part of excellent special teams play all day.
  • The defensive coaching staff. After being flat-out embarassed last year against the option, these guys had the Cats prepared and motivated to stuff Air Force this year. Again like last week, they held the opponent under 20, but the offense's turnovers gave up points and field position.
THINGS TO WORK ON
  • Capitalize off turnovers. The defense has given the offense six turnovers in the first two weeks. We've scored zero points off those turnovers. We can't keep refusing gifts like this.
  • Offensive line play. We were bigger today and just didn't look good. No consistent running lanes, poor pickups of the blitzes. The one bright spot we converted third and shorts today. But this unit needs to get the ground game going every play instead of forcing Jason Wright to become a fiesty version of Barry Sanders.
  • Offensive coaching. Go back and look at the tapes of the second and third quarters. We had balance, we kept the Falcons guessing, we passed down the middle of the field (even to a tight end!) and we were moving the ball with ease. Now continue to call plays like that in the fourth instead of trying to run out the clock. Also, work extra hard this week to get Basanez' confidence back -- he showed why he's our leader the first three quarters and we'll need more of that the rest of the season. Shake off the last quarter here and move on to Miami.
AROUND THE HORN ...
A day of fantastic finishes around the nation, with some great comebacks and upsets ... college football, gotta love it!

* PENN STATE and PURDUE apparently don't read the NUSports list picks weekly -- we put both teams on upset alert and warned against looking ahead to big-name matchups later in the month. Both looked sluggish and got caught napping at home by teams they should have been able to beat.

* OHIO STATE is starting to become a team that shows up for big games and takes a breather in between -- but they do know how to win close games, and all you gotta do is win.

* Lloyd Carr is on a mission this year. Two big blowouts have MICHIGAN looking ready for the Irish at home next week and for once, I don't think it'll be close this year. Carr and ole Bobby Bowden have entered the 2003 season with massive chips on their shoulders with something to prove -- and both have their teams looking better than anyone in the nation right now.

* MINNESOTA's Glen Mason has a point about the tough Big Ten and how it doesn't pay with the current system to play tough non conference games. But he doesn't have to go to extremes -- and it doesn't make it any more fun to watch.

* IOWA's confidence is rolling. Two big NC games left with ASU at home and the annual ISU stumbling block. If they get by that, watch out Big Ten.

* The defenses of WISCONSIN and ILLINOIS may not have brought their defenses this week, but they managed to outscore mediocre foes enough to win.

* MSU wins, INDIANA loses. Yawn.

A tough loss, but we gotta swallow it and move on to Miami. I was encouraged by a lot of what I saw Saturday, and now I think we're approaching the make-or-break game of the season ... how will we respond? We'll see next week against a solid Miami team.

GO CATS!!! BEAT MIAMI!!!
-SjT



Stephen J. Truog has his own NU oriented web site:  http://www.jorsm.com/~sjtruog


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