Truog: View from the Stands

We needed a break. <br>We deserved a break. <br>We got a break.<br><br> <b>Truog</b> on the <b>NU</b> win over <b>Penn State</b>

When Brett Basanez heaved a pass from midfield with the game deadlocked at 7 Saturday and less than five minutes left, most of the Wildcat fans cringed. They saw the double coverage on the lofty pass and envisioned yet another turnover on a day where NU moved the ball almost at will but gave away scoring chances with fumbles or picks.
But the two Nittany Lion defenders tipped the ball and took each other out while NU's Brandon Horn [being congratulated in AP Photo/by Jeff Roberson](earning D'Wayne Bates' number more and more each week) kept his focus and caught the deflection for the winning touchdown [the Miraculous Reception] in a 17-7 Northwestern victory.

Northwestern overcame an uncharacteristic slow start by the offense, an all-too familiar barrage of turnovers and a crew of clueless officials who seemed determined to pay JoePa back for two years of rotten calls with a bunch of doozies in this single game. The Wildcat defense deserves much of the credit for keeping this a game until the offense woke up, and for the second straight home game, they allowed only a single touchdown and were simply the more physical and dominant team.

The game could be best described as two teams playing consistently opposite halves of football. In the first half, Penn State dominated time of possession, marched the ball all over the field, held the Cats to a few first downs and little more ... yet managed to only score seven points thanks to some missed field goals in the red zone. In the second half, Northwestern did what PSU did in the first half -- pounding the ball at the Lions, controlling the clock and only managing to score seven points before Horn's catch because of fumbles in the red zone.

With all the running and long, sustained drives, time flew by and most of the game passed the officiating crew by as well. On Penn State's touchdown drive, NU's defense appeared to have held PSU to a field goal attempt when a third down pass sailed over the receiver's head in the end zone.

But the flags flew and a questionable interference (not even holding, interference?!?!) call kept the drive alive and PSU scored two plays later -- even though Zack Mills never crossed the goal line.

In the third quarter, NU was mounting a drive when Basanez threw a pass near the sidelines under pressure. A late-hit flag was thrown that would keep the drive alive ... but after much discussion, the refs decided against drawing JoePa's wrath and threw in the first of two puzzling intentional grounding calls on the Cats to offset the personal foul on PSU. But for most of the afternoon, the refs didn't throw the laundry, which allowed the game to clock in at a brisk pace and was probably for the best because when a flag was thrown, these guys needed conference calls, extra study sessions and usually a complex game of rock-paper-scissors to decide what their call would be.

But after the fun flakes of snow cleared, the better team emerged the winner and Northwestern kept its bowl hopes alive with the win. It didn't start that way, as Jason Wright fumbled on our first possession after a big play that took NU down to the PSU 30, and the offense seldom got a first down or moved past midfield the rest of the half. And we had no answer for PSU's two-quarterback formations that often saw Michael Robinson slip out of the backfield and find himself wide open for a 10-yard pass from Mills.

The Lions helped NU's defense keep it close, though, with a drop of a sure touchdown pass on a great play-fake call and two chip-shot field goals that were missed. However, the Wildcat defense also stood strong as PSU did not score off any of the Wildcat turnovers. NU headed to the locker room down only 7-0 and able to moved the ball fairly well, but not able to hold on to it once they crossed into Lion territory.

After what had to be a fiery halftime, though, the Cats came out with a brilliant drive that took more than half the third quarter and marched the 1 yard line. But a 4th and Goal plunge was stopped just short, and to make matters worse, two timeouts were burned on the goal line series with no points resulting from them.

A second long NU drive that took the rest of the third quarter and some of the fourth ended with a fumble in the red zone. So despite a complete reversal of the first half with Northwestern dominating time of possession and running all over the Lions, NU had no points to show for it as they faced fourth down and a 35-yard field goal attempt with only half of the fourth quarter remaining.

Northwestern came out in a bizarre formation that seemed more designed to get PSU to burn a timeout than to do anything else. It was sort of a punt formation without a punter deep, and the resulting play looked a little similar to the fake Randy Walker called against Wisconsin two weeks ago. Eric Batis took the snap, stumbled at first and sprinted around the end for a first down that woke the crowd up even more than booing those rotten officiating calls. It led to a Jason Wright touchdown to tie the game and officially switched the momentum to the purple helmets.[Noah Herron running in the 4th quarter/AP Photo-Jeff Roberson]

After a defensive stand, the Cats got the ball back at midfield and the miraculous Horn reception followed afterwards. On the Lions'next drive, pressure led to an interception that allowed a Brian Huffman field goal to seal the game with less than a minute remaining. After a game of moving the ball with no results to show for it, the Wildcats exploded in the final seven minutes and fed off the momentum and small but vocal Wildcat fans in the stands. A lot of students and other fans stayed home with the snow and cold, but the folks who came to Ryan Field on Saturday were the kind of fans you want at Northwestern games. They were standing on third down. They were making noise for Northwestern. And after the game, the team again gathered in front of the students to sing "Go U" as a salute to each other's efforts on the day.

What has to be most exciting for Wildcat fans is the complete transformation of this team -- not just from Walker's earlier years to this year, but from the start of this season to now. This is the most physical Northwestern team, especially on defense, since the 1995 squad. This is more of a traditional Walker team with a punishing run game complemented by the pass and not the other way around. This isn't a team that uses fancy formations to pass around the field or has to rally late to outscore opponents. This is a team that comes out looking to pop its opponents in the mouth and push them around the field all day -- and it fully expects to do that. We saw glimpses of it in games against Air Force and Minnesota, but now this team puts complete games together.

The new systems of last year's new coordinators are taking hold, especially on defense. Colby's plan is starting to throw in a few blitzes, and the front line (especially Loren Howard, who is becoming an All-Big Ten caliber player and beyond) is getting pressure. Our linebackers are really thriving again under the leadership of Pat Durr (and Fitz on the sidelines, no doubt). Even the secondary is playing well -- some of these guys were new to the position, but they're usually right in there with the play, looking to tip the ball or make a pick -- which is miles ahead of past secondaries that wouldn't even turn around..

The offense is at the point where it almost doesn't matter who you throw in at running back. The line is starting to come together on blocking schemes and Wright, Herron and Jordan are all hitting the holes well ... when healthy, of course. The receivers are also banged up a bit, but the emergence of Horn is more exciting to watch every week, and we actually have started throwing over the middle as well -- which is a necessary partner of those quick sideouts (so is the long ball!). We're matching the hard hits of NU's defense with some good pounding of the football on offense for long, dominant drives.

If the Cats can cut out all those turnovers, they have a chance to beat just about anybody outside of Norman, Oklahoma. Even Michigan. We're at 5-5 and coming together as a team, playing the most physical brand of football the fans in Evanston have seen in almost a decade. Under the lights on ABC, who knows what will happen. Hopefully the fans will be able to forget the past two seasons or the start of this year and put aside their too-lofty expectations and realize that right now, this team has a great shot of earning what would be only the fifth bowl bid in the school's history. A bid that would gain a lot of momentum with a victory over Michigan on network TV.

So come to the stadium next Saturday. Wear PURPLE! Make NOISE! STAND on third down! And say a loud and proud THANK YOU to our small but standout group of seniors. These guys faced a lot of adversity the past few years -- but their leadership and play have led to one of the more remarkable in-season turnarounds Northwestern fans have ever seen. Thank you seniors. BEAT MICHIGAN!

Now I just have to get my voice back in seven days!:) To the game balls ...


* Noah HerronWith Wright's injury, Herron stepped up big-time and amassed almost 200yards on the ground. He's always been a nice power back who rarely goes down on the first hit, but he also showed some nice field vision and speed bursts against Penn State to keep the offense going throughout the game.

* Loren Howard. You could give the entire defense a game ball, but Howard stood out for the pressure he was able to get on the quarterback, even with 3 men rushing. Like Jason Wright, Howard would probably be an All-American if more people would look beyond the school's name and notice his play. Thankfully, he's in purple and stepping up to be the leader of a rapidly improving and physical front line.

* The Big Uglies. [Trai Essex AP Photo] Yes, the Lions have the worst rushing defense in the league, but the Cats offensive line manhandled the Nits all day and kept the pressure on Basanez to a minimum.

* Turnovers. The fumbles killed our chances at Purdue. They almost blew it against Penn State as well, but the defense was able to hold. Against Michigan, we have to hang on to the ball to have a chance at pulling the upset. And Basanez has to make better throws on the run as well. No more turnovers!

* Field position. Even though we stopped the Lions in the first half most of the time, we gave them a short field most of the day and -- until the fourth quarter -- the NU offense usually started with a deep hole. Michigan will take better advantage if we give 'em midfield starting position all day.

* Receiving game. Yes, I know we're banged up in the receiving corps, but we need to utilize the younger players stepping up, like Horn, and throw more crossing routes over the middle or deep routes to keep Michigan's D honest. Also, find the TIGHT END streaking up the hash marks!


* OHIO STATE looked impressive against Michigan State and if they can beat what will be two BCS top 15 teams the rest of the way, I wouldn't count out a repeat appearance in the title game as the Big Ten's strength of schedule (and a loss by LSU) would vault them over USC.

* PURDUE wrapped up a strong season at home, but unless they win at the Shoe next week, it will be somewhat disappointing given the talent and expectations. On the flip side, it probably narrowed the Big Ten's BCS hopes to three teams -- and OSU plays both in the next two weeks. As for the Hawks -- it's the Alamo Bowl and a prize pig on the line next week against the Gophers.

* Speaking of which, MINNESOTA's win over Wisconsin exceeded its expectations and reversed their pattern of starting strong against creampuffs and folding in the Big Ten. Not playing Purdue or OSU helps, but still a nice year for Mason's crew. And the Badgers' season is collapsing
-- they still have MSU and Iowa left to try and salvage something.

* INDIANA beat the Illini. Yawn.

* Let me get this straight - the Big Ten's ABC game at 2:30 was pre-empted by GOLF?!?! An OK sport to play, but utterly painful to watch -- why is this "sport" bumping the excitement of college football off the airwaves? In NOVEMBER?! Pathetic.


Stephen J. Truog has his own NU oriented Web Site
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