We saw glimpses of potential in the game against Air Force and the start against Minnesota, but this was the real thing, sustained for four quarters. Aside from a turnover or two and a couple of abysmal special teams kicks, it was a perfect game for Northwestern and the best 60 minutes of football this team has played in a few years.
Anyone who's seen the Cats this year wasn't too surprised by the first quarter. In contrast to the Comeback Cats of years past, the 2003 Northwestern squad comes out of the locker room focused and jumps on top of teams right away. They've just had trouble hanging on to those leads. The first drive didn't do much, but after a missed Badger field goal gave the defense a lift, NU's offense came out and put together a nice scoring drive, mixing the run and pass plays.SjT GAME BALLS
They also took advantage of Wisconsin's aggressive secondary coverage. The Badgers bit on a pump fake on the first pass and tried for the pick instead of the tackle on the 53-yard touchdown that Jason Wright won the battle in the air for before racing toward the end zone.
In a day of kicking struggles as both teams were missing their top specialist, the PAT attempt was miserably low and blocked. A later Wildcat drive ended inside the 10 and a 25-yard field goal was blocked. Considering that missed scoring chance, and a Jim Leonhard fumble on a punt return at the 20 that was called back for forward progress, the Badgers had to be thankful to escape the first quarter only down 6-0.
After that blocked field goal try, the Badgers had the ball at midfield and momentum. But in a heartening sign of things to come on the day, our defense didn't fold. A quick three-and-out send the Wisconsin punt team onto the field and gave the Cats confidence that things may turn around in a hurry (like, say, a 98-yard touchdown pass), but they can hang in there.
The Cats defense also came out with a great gameplan to match that attitude. They knew that with a backup QB, the Badgers still had the deep pass with a talent like Lee Evans, but that UW would primarily go to the run and they did everything to stop that run -- mixing up formations, bringing different secondary members up for run support, etc. The Badgers broke one run all day -- that was the touchdown run that put 'em on top 7-6, but Wisconsin's leading rusher was their quarterback with a mere 53 yards, and that's a huge victory for the defense.
Another positive sign -- after that Badger score, we shut the door and didn't let that open the floodgates as in games past. The Badgers had a few possessions in a row that started at midfield and won the field position battle consistently throughout the first half. But our defense didn't let 'em score and a change in kickers to punter Brian Huffman made the score 9-7 at the half, Northwestern on top.
The Badgers had a few threats in the second half, but aside from one drive where they got close and missed another field goal, the Cats were up for every challenge, continuing to stuff the run and getting a surprising amount of pressure on the Badgers with Loren Howard and Colby Clark spending much of the day in the Wisconsin backfield. NU had two sacks [AP Photo upper left], including a crucial one on third down from Pat Durr, stuffed numerous runs for negative yardage and had a fourth down stop in the fourth quarter that sealed the game.
The Northwestern offense only scored once in the second half, but did a good job getting drives going to avoid quick 3-and-outs and give the D some rest to stay fresh in the fourth. They converted a few third downs late to salt the game away, but the backbreaker came on a fake field goal call with Noah Herron [AP Photo right]. It shouldn't have surprised Wisconsin too much that we'd fake a 40-yard field goal with a third-string kicker, but the trickery in Coach Randy Walker's call was perfect for the situation and led to a huge run down the sidelines for Herron to set up another Wright touchdown [see lead picture from AP].
Not many people were surprised to see the Cats jump out in front, but as the second ticked away in the fourth quarter, the fans in red and purple were absolutely stunned to see the Cats hold on with such poise. Even after an interception at the 33, the D held and Wisconsin came away with no points.
This team did a lot of maturing in the bye week. The Badgers were outcoached, outhustled and outplayed all day and completely shut down. Northwestern's staff prepared their team well, came in with the perfect gameplan and made the better decisions during the game as well. The Cats had about a 100 yard edge in total yards and rushing yards and only committed four penalties. This was the team we had seen glimpses of earlier in the year. They put it all together for a complete game and looked very much like a team in contention for the fifth bowl bid in school history.
* THE DEFENSE. Give all of 'em a game ball because they took one of the league's most consistently dominant rushing teams and absolutely shut 'em down all day. Great focus on stopping the run, and even better, they came up with big stops after turnovers and good UW field position that kept momentum from slipping away. Sacks, pressure, forcing bad throws, stopping the ball behind the line of scrimmage. You name it, these guys did it. Some nice, solid hits as well.THINGS TO WORK ON
* JASON WRIGHT. If this guy were in Maize and Blue or a Golden Dome helmet, he'd be booking reservations for the Downtown Athletic Club in December. An amazing day -- great receiving, incredible running and the single-most amazing run I've seen in years ... maybe ever, when he broke tackles from seemingly everyone wearing a Wisconsin helmet and took a play that should have been stuffed at the line and got close to 10 yards on willpower alone. The most underrated player in the league and possibly the country.
* SPECIAL TEAMS. Yes, I know that seems like a stretch after the first two kicks of the day that barely made it waist-high on the onrushing players, but after that, this was a solid unit for the Cats in every phase. Huffman's punts had nice hangtime and our coverage units kept Jim Leonhard from breaking a big return as he did against Purdue and other times this year. And Huffman kicked a bunch of touchbacks and a field goal and PAT when needed. The only reason he has to share is the coverage units and our fake punt unit with Herron's game-clinching run in the fourth. Philmore had a couple nice punt returns as well before his injury. A solid day after a shaky start.
Special game balls to the fans and coaches. I guess it takes 30,000 loud invaders in red (or a T-shirt cannon) to get our fans on their feet ... or maybe it was just the high number of alums for homecoming. In any case, they were loud and proud, making noise and fueling NU's emotions all day.
As for the coaches, great preparation and gameplan. Now the challenge is to continue this maturation and momentum into a tough game in West Lafayette and for the rest of the season.
* THE LITTLE THINGS. We obviously worked on the basics and big things in the bye week with great success -- now time to fine tune -- up the middle specifically on both the pass and run. We haven't really thrown over the middle much this year (Hello! We have a tight end!) and when Basanez did today, we had some drops and miscommunications that let plays slip away. And in the running game, we had great success with sweeps but on short yardage, we crammed everyone in the box and couldn't get a yard to save our life. I don't like the formation of everyone in the box to begin with, but our short-yardage blocking needs some oomph.AROUND THE LEAGUE
* READING DEFENSES: Brett Basanez is getting better at knowing when to throw and such, but he has to look around before the snap better and read the blitz coming. The Badgers brought the safety or corner in a couple times for blitzes and he didn't see it coming. Take your time at the line and do your homework on the D.
* KICKING. Huffman did admirable work as the last resort, but we simply can't go on much longer without a strong kicker. We'll need a 40-yard field goal sooner or later in the next month and it could cost us a shot at a bowl if we don't fix it soon. Hold open tryouts -- surely there's a soccer player on campus who can kick the ball through the uprights.
* PURDUE is the league's best overall team with offensive and defensive balance, but their horrendous short-yardage offense will keep them out of the Rose Bowl. They made last week's win in Madison closer that it should have been by failing on countless attempts inside the 10 and failed again in the Big House this week to score in the red zone against MICHIGAN when given a few chances in the first half. Hopefully they're still stinging about it next weekWe needed this one, and the defense delivered with a masterful performance. It's been a few years since we won on homecoming and the Cats gave the alums plenty to cheer about today. They also gave themselves a good shot at a bowl bid if they can keep up the momentum. This team took some big steps forward today and it's fun to watch 'em put it all together. Hopefully they can do it again, this time on the road, next week.
* As for the other three games, not much to say except that MINNESOTA, OHIO STATE and IOWA are bowl teams and PSU, INDIANA and ILLINOIS are, well, not. And that's being generous.
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