Truog: Its hard to beat a better team

If you're all doom and gloom after the loss to Michigan, you're not alone, but SjT has a slightly different take on Saturday's game.<br><br> And some real positives to remember as we face the Illini...

Some days, you run into a better team and there's just not much you can do.
But no one says you have to help the other team out even more with turnovers. Northwestern did just that Saturday, turning what was a game effort by an undermatched team into a big blowout by Big Blue as Michigan rolled over the Cats 41-10.

The opening kickoff went out of bounds and NU started the game at the 35 yard line. Until midway through the fourth, both teams would start their drives this game with excellent field position, usually at the 35 or 40. But the Cats couldn't establish a run or much else all day and had to punt the ball away.

In what would become as familiar as a broken record, the Wolverines opened their first drive on the 35, passed on first down for 15 or so yards and were at midfield in no time. When the Michigan offense is on, you have to pick your poison -- stop Chris Perry and the rushing game or stop Braylon Edwards and the passing game. You just can't do both.

Northwestern opted for the former and tried to take away the ground game. This meant that Edwards and the other receivers had 10 yard cushions in soft coverage and could get 7 or 8 yards at will. Michigan used that to march down the field and when it came to third and short, Perry was able to pick up a few yards. A few plays later, UM was in the end zone for a 7-0 lead. And it looked like the rout was on.

But not yet, as Northwestern responded with a nice drive (most of it coming on some nifty scrambling runs by Brett Basanez). The Cats couldn't get six, but they did get a Brian Huffman field goal to cut it to 7-3. The Wildcat defense bent, but did not break on the Wolverines' next two possessions (despite the nice field position for UM), giving up only three points.

And so the game was a 10-3 slugfest in the middle of the second quarter. Michigan had clearly dominated the stats, but the Cats were hanging in there and figuring out the Wolverine D a little with some quarterback draws and quick slants over the middle that were open all day. Everyone knew that the Cats would need a break to tie the game or take the lead, but the breaks went in the opposite direction.

In the span of a few minutes, the close game turned into a rout. It started with another fumble by the Wildcat offense after a promising run (as has happened too many times the last three games). This time it was by Basanez after a nice scramble. The scoreboard didn't show replays, but it looked like he may have started his slide (and hence been down) before the ball came lose.

Nevertheless, Michigan took the turnover, pounded the ball down the field and took a 17-3 lead. On the ensuing short kickoff, the ball rolled off of Derell Jenkins' knee and Michigan recovered. In a rarity, Lloyd Carr went for the jugular (as a Michigan fan in the 80s and 90s before coming to NU, I can tell you that this never happened in the big games vs. Notre Dame!) and found Edwards for a nice touchdown catch to make it 24-3. Boom. In a couple minutes, the roof caved in and the game was over. That's what happens when you turn the ball over.

Michigan scored once more before the half on one of the more beautiful one-handed catches you'll see to make it 31-3. The second half went by quickly and mercifully with the lead at 34-3 after the third and 41-10 after the fourth. The only highlight was a perfectly called reverse to Brandon Horn on fourth and goal that started off like NU was running the option (which had little effect on the day) but flipped back into a reverse and had the entire Michigan defense out of position.

Had we been able to hang on to the ball, it's doubtful we could have won unless Michigan had made a mistake or two ... but it certainly wouldn't have been over by halftime. Gotta hang on to that ball!

Michigan was playing as well as they've played all year -- had they showed up like that in Oregon and Iowa (or even one of the two), they'd be the #2 team in every poll right now and headed for the Sugar Bowl. The last two games, Michigan finally looked like the team many had picked to win the Big Ten and be in New Orleans this year.

They may end up winning the Big Ten if they beat the Buckeyes next week, but it's too late to save my little Sugar Bowl bet made over the summer in Vegas! Thanks for nothing, Lloyd! Where was this balance and talent in Autzen and Kinnick!

Otherwise, during that long second half I think I figured out why everyone else dislikes Michigan fans so much. It always puzzled me, because I've always had pleasant experiences (winning and losing) when at the Big House as a visitor. The fans don't yell at you -- they don't even yell much for their own team. It's the quietest gathering of 100,000+ people you'll ever see.

But the 20,000 or so Michigan fans who packed Ryan Field on Saturday were the Maize and Blue version of the Subway Alumni -- they're not Michigan Stadium ticketholders for the most part, but obnoxious, annoying Chicago bandwagoners. And we had to be sitting in front of the Beavis and Butthead of the bunch -- with the two most annoying laughs you've ever heard on constant roar all day. To make matters worse, when I saw them walk out at the end, they weren't the drunken college kids I envisioned, but thirtysomething chuckleheads.

Sadly for the people in Ann Arbor, these are the kinds of fans most of the rest of us in Big Ten country encounter when we play Michigan. It was almost enough to make me consider NOT cheering against Ohio State next weekend ...

But enduring those morons wasn't as painful as watching the home season come to an end in such disappointing fashion. Our seniors deserved better and the 10 of them deserved a rousing standing ovation for sticking through some rough years and being able to exit with some light at the end of the tunnel. We simply ran into a better team on Saturday. Looking at the season as a whole, we still have a chance at six wins and a bowl game if we rebound for next weekend -- that's something nobody predicted before the year or even at the start of October. It was a pleasure watching each of you play in Ryan Field the past four years. Thank you and BEAT ILLINOIS!!!

GAME BALLS
* Brett Basanez - He had a couple of turnovers, but he was the only one who seemed to be able to move the ball against the Michigan defense. And unlike the last couple of games, he had no protection whatsoever this week.

* Seniors - As I said above, you guys turned this team around this year and should walk off the field next week with your heads held high no matter what the bowl situation is. Thanks to you, the future looks bright again in Evanston.

THINGS TO WORK ON
* Turnovers - This week's game is a rivalry and the Illini will be rested off the bye week and trying to avoid a winless conference season. Turning the ball over will only help feed their fire, so hang on.

* Mental focus - We lapsed into a bunch of stupid penalties again last week, with some false starts and such that showed we were not into the game. We need to get back on track against Illinois.

* Shake it off - The Michigan game is over and they're a heck of a team. Put it behind you and focus on the Illini. A win gets you six wins and hope for a bowl berth, but the Illini will not roll over and despite the records, still feel that they should be the favorite on Saturday. Get back to physical football, cut down on the turnovers and dominate on defense.

AROUND THE HORN
* OHIO STATE just keeps winning. They're not as flashy as Michigan and don't roll up the margin of victory, but they just keep winning and they're one play away from being unbeaten right now. They should be beaten in Ann Arbor next weekend if Michigan plays like they did against us ... but if this is a close game in the fourth quarter, I'm sure not gonna bet against Tressel and Krenzel. These guys have ice in their veins.

* IOWA and WISCONSIN woke up from slumbers with big victories to set themselves up for a showdown for the Alamo (or Outback if we get two BCS
bids) next weekend in Madison.

* PENN STATE took out some frustration on Indiana, proving that even among the three cellar dwellars in the league this year, there is a distinct pecking order. Fortunately for the Illini, they don't have to play PSU this year.

Hard to believe the home slate is over and we're one week away from the end of the Wildcat's 2003 season. It's been an interesting ride this year, and there's lots to look forward to next year. But hopefully we can shake off this game and win in Champaign next week to get that sixth win. After that, we let the Big Ten machine kick in and hopefully find a place for us. Regardless of whether it gets us a bowl or not, six wins would be a very good season and something unexpected, even in mid-October.

GO CATS!!! BEAT THE ILLINI!!!
- SjT


 


Stephen J. Truog has his own NU oriented Web Site
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