Unfortunately for Northwestern that old saying came around to bite 'em from behind as the Gophers rallied from an early 14-0 deficit for beat the Cats 42-17.
It's just not college football season until the students return and the band is in the stands, and on a perfect autumn Saturday in Evanston, two teams that had a history of close, high-scoring games in recent years lined up again for what looked to be a fairly even game. Minnesota came in 5-0 but untested and NU entered 2-3, but easily could have been 3-2 and were playing better football since the Miami loss.SjT GAME BALLS
The first quarter was about as good as it gets for Northwestern fans. Minnesota had used some quick starts to jump ahead of opponents this year and never look back, but the Cats came out of the locker room with an attitude and a blueprint for beating the 21st-ranked team in the nation. NU played smashmouth football like the good ole' days and slammed the ball down Minny's throat on an impressive opening drive that took 5 minutes off the clock and gave purple a 7-0 lead. After a quick 3-and-out stand by the defense, another long drive filled with the O-line pushing Minnesota around gave Northwestern a 14-0 advantage and the Gophers were buring early timeouts just to try and figure out what hit 'em.
It was as good as the Cats have looked in years. They were running well, pass blocking well, converting third downs, sustaining drives and in a rhythm on offense and playing with attitude. On defense, the backers were swarming, we got a nice pass rush with the front three or four and the Gophers didn't convert a first down until well into the second quarter. They never did get a ground game established until garbage time at the end, but now we're getting ahead of ourselves.
About the only thing that did go wrong was an interception thrown by Brett Basanez at the end of the quarter at midfield, but the D came out to get another 3-and-out to keep the turnover from hurting. Otherwise, it was a perfect quarter for Northwestern. It was 14-0, Minny's high-powered offense was barely on the field and the Cats looked like a determined, confident bunch.
But as another cliche goes, you gotta go for the jugular. Northwestern's special teams had a good day of kickoff returns and every drive in the first half seemed to start at the 35 or better, several near midfield. You just can't continue to squander such great field position. We were up 14-0, on a roll, but never went for the knockout punch with a play-action deep ball or busting a big run. And so it stayed 14-0 for awhile with NU always starting around midfield and Minnesota never getting the offense going.
To use yet another cliche, it can all turn around in a play. And so it did after a few minutes in the second quarter. Another beautiful Brian Huffman pooch punt pinned Minnesota at the 1 yard line. They couldn't muster anything and had 3rd down at the 4 yard line after a holding penalty negated a first down. The flag wound up hurting the Cats. On the replay of third down, there looked to be some more holding on the outside pass rush, but no call and Asad Abdul-Khaliq found the tall Jared Ellerson wide open after the D-back slipped and the result was a 96-yard touchdown pass that flipped the game upside down. We never had the answer and the air went out of the crowd and fired-up team after that.
Minnesota may not have been able to muster a drive in the first half or get a consistent running game going, but they have some big playmakers and scored on some big plays and short drives in a 21-point second quarter outburst to give Minnesota the lead for good. And unlike the Cats, they went for that jugular after an interception was ripped away from an NU receiver with a big pass play that set up the third touchdown.
Now it was Northwestern who was shell-shocked. But they had a chance to make the half a scratch of two opposite quarters with a nice two-minute drill that had 1st and Goal at the 6 yard line. A no-gain run, huge missed opportunity on a well-designed fade pass and QB sack later (gotta get rid of that ball, Brett!), it was 4th and Goal at the 22. Knowing our field goal woes this year, no one held their breath. But to his credit, Slade Larscheid hit a kick perfectly between the uprights to salvage a three and get NU's first field goal of the season.
But any momentum was lost less than a minute into the second half when Minnesota again showed their quick-strike attack with an 82-yard TD pass to put UM up 28-17. From there it was all downhill. The defense forgot how to tackle (and they couldn't be tired -- Minny's TD drives were a minute or so long and we had a huge time of possession edge) and the offense that had 10 first downs in the first quarter only got five the rest of the way as Minnesota stacked the box and dared us to pass -- we could do neither.
This was a winnable game that Northwestern looked to be well in control of after the first quarter, but much like the Air Force and Kansas games, they never could add to that two-score lead and fell out of sync. I liked so much of what I saw the first 15 minutes and so little of what I saw the next 45. Minnesota didn't look like a particularly good team, but they do have a mobile, smart quarterback who gives their tall receivers a chance to make big plays ... and they did that time after time to explode in a short span and take a game where they were doing absolutely nothing right and turn it into a game they were leading by three touchdowns all of a sudden.
We came out with a great game plan and executed it to near perfection. Minnesota adjusted in the second quarter, daring us to pass with their defense and throwing over the top of our defense with their passing game. We never quite recovered after that 96-yard demoralizer with our focus (sloppy penalties -- absent in the first quarter -- crept back in), and our coaches never countered Minnesota's coaching moves.
To go back to the cliche well one last time, all good things must come to an end, and that amazing first quarter ended all too soon with a disappointing thud. There are still signs of a decent team in those purple uniforms, but they have to respond to adversity better, beginning next week with a winnable road game at Indiana.
* Roger Jordan - When the game was still somewhat within reach in the third quarter, Jordan made a simply incredible catch on a third down to keep the drive alive. Anyone who saw the game knows the one I'm talking about -- he dove and laid out his body to bring that one in with his hands and it was a thing of beauty. He also had a few good routes and comebacks when Basanez had time to throw or was on the rollout.THINGS TO WORK ON
* Slade Larscheid - It turned out to be just three points that didn't matter much in the final score, but it was nice to get that monkey off the back and getting back a kicker's confidence could pay dividends down the line. And such a beautiful kick as well -- how the heck did it take six games to hit one of those when Slade made it look so easy.
* Special teams - Great kickoff returns all day resulted in excellent field position. And we flipped the field a few times with Huffman's punts as well, including that one at the 1 that went to waste. These units set up the offense and defense all day and you can't ask for much more on their part.
* Increasing that lead. Up 21-7 against Air Force and Kansas and up 14-0 against Minnesota and we seemed to play like the game was over. We went away from the play calls that were working and that's OK if you're going for the knockout punch once and awhile with the deep ball to capitalize, but we didn't even do that. These Cats need to learn that an early two-score lead needs to be increased.AROUND THE HORN
* Not hanging those heads. Yes, a 96-yard TD pass is a quick momentum changer and a demoralizing play, but you gotta get up from that hit and respond. We never did. You could sense it in the players, coaches and crowd. That big pass took all the wind out of our sails and we were never the same. We get another chance next week with Indiana -- instead of hanging your heads, go out there and play like you did to start off the Minny game ... and this time finish the job.
* Throwing downfield. We don't have the deep threats the Gophers have, but we have to do something to keep the opponents from packing in that defense. Our short passes are fine if mixed in well with runs (the rollouts with a tight end or back slipping out worked really well), but a pump fake and deep throw here or there is needed to keep the D's honest. The line gave Basanez time most of the day, let him air it out at least once.
And remember Wildcat fans -- today's loss was tough to watch, but Northwestern still has as many wins in 2003 as Notre Dame and Illinois combined. (Of course, the three schools together don't match the win total over in DeKalb, but we won't mention that).
* Coach of the week: A good game with the Hawkeyes and Wolverines ... a bit more points than expected, but that great tension nonetheless. The Wolverines just look like a different team away from the Big House - a very mediocre one. Nice rebound by Iowa and Ferentz.
* Coach of the year?: Another great coaching job is being done in East Lansing. MSU is one second away from being 5-0 right now and responded to their heartbreaking loss in fine fashion with two big road wins. If they can get two more wins on the road next at Illinois and Minnesota, it could set up a huge November 1 showdown with Big Ole' Blue in Spartan Stadium.
* From the sky is falling department: Penn State is now facing a road swing to West Lafayette and Iowa City, and unless a miracle occurs, they'll be 2-6 and coming home to face the defending national champs to fend for their bowl hope lives. On the flip side, Wisconsin has quietly come back from that UNLV loss and is 5-1 with a huge prime-time showdown with Ohio State on Saturday in Camp Randall.
* More sky is falling: Purdue is on a roll and ready to fight for the league title, but the latest roadkill victim on the Boiler Express, Illinois, is also in serious danger or being able to make Christmas plans at home well before November. They get Michigan, MSU, Iowa and Minnesota in the next four weeks. Lose more than one and it's oske-ow-ow for any bowl hopes.
GO CATS!!! BEAT INDIANA!!!
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