We didn't deserve the win.
But in the end, the only stat that matters is the final score and the Cats got it done, to move their record to 3-3. Northwestern now gets a much-needed bye week to recoup from injuries and prepare for a pivotal two-game stretch against the last two unbeaten teams from the Big Ten.
It was another picture-perfect autumn Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston. It's probably the least-attended series in terms of fan support, but the Indiana/Northwestern games during the past decade have produced some wild finishes and close games, and Saturday would be no different. The score wasn't as high as usual and the action was lacking for three quarters, but the Cats and Hoosiers worked overtime to give the fans their money's worth.SjT GAME BALLS
The first 58 minutes, however, were an exercise in sheer frustration for the Northwestern faithful (and a rather disappointingly thin faithful after last week's game -- especially light on student turnout -- tests already? Nocturnal Cat fans?). The Cats came out without much focus -- moving the ball well on offense and stopping the Hoosiers on defense, but not finishing what they started. This game should have been over in the first 20 minutes, but NU acted like they already had it won instead of going out to win it, and the longer the Cats let IU hang around, the more likely it seemed that the Hoosiers would pull off the upset.
The NU defense did not allow the Hoosiers to cross midfield until there was 12:49 remaining the second quarter. In that time, the NU offense ran all over IU's defense, marching inside the red zone three times and coming away with only 7 points. Our opening drive stalled inside the 10 when we went for it on 4th and 1 and couldn't make the conversion. It was the right call to go for the first down -- we had been moving it well and it was early, so there wasn't much to lose -- but I didn't like our jumbo formation. With no one spread wide, the entire defense could focus between the tackles and stuff the run up the gut, and we don't have the big QB like IU to do a sneak ... it didn't work here, but tuck my complaint in the back of your mind for the end of the game and watch it blow up in my face (to my delight).
Our second drive came after the defense recovered an IU fumble in Hoosier territory. A couple of solid Noah Herron runs later, the Cats found the end zone for a 7-0 lead. NU's third drive of the game again took the Cats inside the 10 yard line. We were looking for that big two-score lead, but some bad calls, poor execution and ill-advised penalties forced the field goal attempt. Brian Huffman hooked the kick wide left and despite being absolutely dominated for the first 20 minutes of the game, the Hoosiers found themselves only down a touchdown. This game should have been over, but it was just beginning.
Indiana capitalized on our laxidasical efforts by promptly driving 80 yards in three minutes to tie the score. Not much happened the rest of the first half except the two kickers exchanging missed field goals. In Huffman's defense, his attempt was from 48 yards. However, it wouldn't have been good from 28 yards.
After making all the right calls last week, the NU coaching staff hit the wrong buttons Saturday for those first 58 minutes. We went to the well too many times on a couple gimmick plays and screens, and our clock management was horrendous. Nevermind that we took the Mike Martz approach in attempting to call all of our timeouts before the first quarter was done. But at the end of the half and at the end of regulation, we were fortunate not to be burned by quick timeout calls. In both cases, we could have let the clock run down to :10 or less to attempt the field goal, but called the timeout quickly with :34 remaining. At the end of the first half, IU thankfully took a knee. But at the end of regulation, they had a good shot at mounting a last-ditch drive until they self-destructed with a couple of questionable play calls.
With the score tied 7-7 heading into the locker rooms, the Cats needed a wakeup call, especially on offense. The defense wasn't spectacular, but they did do a nice job of stuffing IU's ground game all day, holding the IU backs to less than 2 yards per carry if you take away a few scrambles from quarterback Matt LoVecchio to avoid coverage pressure. The D had dropped at least three interception attempts that would have been big turnovers, but they did get a fumble and held IU in the first quarter, giving the O plenty of chances to build up a lead.
The defense also seems to have perfected getting us to third down. Now they just need to work on getting us OFF the field after third down. Indiana faced third and long all day, with the Cats shutting down the running game and forcing the deep pass. The problem was, IU converted most of those third downs. You can either cover tight or put pressure on the QB, but in regulation, Northwestern did neither. We really only had one third down blitz (resulting in an errant pass from LoVecchio, whose accuracy was spotty at best beyond 10 yards) and gave big cushions all day. But we weren't tied at half because of the defense ... they gave the offense every opportunity to build a lead and we failed to score on two trips inside the 10 yard line.
Northwestern had the ball first in the second half, but played just as lethargic as they had in the first half, stalling the drive at midfield. After nearly fumbling the punt inside the 20-yard-line, Indiana responded and showed the Cats that if they play with fire long enough, they will get burned. Thanks to couple of IU penalties, what resulted was a 97-yard drive by Indiana for the touchdown and just like that, a game that should have been over an hour ago was a 14-7 lead for the underdog Hoosiers. IU wideout Courtney Roby scored the go-ahead TD on third down (surprise) 15-yard pass where he broke the tackle and ran for a 48-yard score.
Would this be the big play that finally woke the Cats up? Or would the Hoosiers give Northwestern a dangerous lesson in reading too many press clippings and not putting away a team when you have the chance?
At first, it looked like it would be the latter. On the ensuing drive, Brett Basanez made a rare bad decision, throwing a lofty pass off balance and under pressure that was intercepted at midfield. Indiana was in position to put two scores between themselves and the Cats, but the NU defense -- worn down on third down all day -- rose to the occasion big-time here. The NU defense held IU to three and out and forced a punt. This was the turning point of the game, as the defensive stand took some steam out of the Hoosiers after a TD and an interception, and it kept the sleepy Cats in the game, still with time for a wake-up call.
That call was answered by Noah Herron, who capped a 94-yard scoring drive by Northwestern with a beautiful 49-yard touchdown run off the option. We still don't look too pretty running the option, but what Herron did this time was cut back against the flow and then he did a nice job waiting for his blockers, and a nice block by Mark Philmore downfield sealed the left side for the touchdown run. With 2:52 remaining in the third quarter, Northwestern had woken from its slumbe a little at least to tie this game at 14-14.
Indiana responded with another long drive full of third down conversions. Most frustrating, though, was a fourth down conversion that not only burned an NU timeout (clock management!), but was given to the Hoosiers when we lined up offsides (and LoVecchio was short on the QB sneak to boot). The Cats defense continued to add to the self-inflicted wound column with a pass interference call in the end zone -- the pass was a floater that could have easily been broken up or even intercepted, had the Dback (Henderson) turned around. The NU defense did hold IU to a field goal, however, so with just over 11 minutes remaining, the Hoosies were in front 17-14.
The teams exchanged stalled drives (IU really blowing a chance to ice the game with two consecutive penalties that took them out of a 4th and 1 at the 27 and forced a punt) when Northwestern got the ball back at the 20 yard line with only 3:53 remaining. The Cats only had one timeout left, so fans knew that this was the drive NU needed to do something to salvage a game that was rapidly slipping away.
There was plenty of time for a regular offensive attack (i.e. the Noah Herron Show, that had been working most of the day), but three ill-advised passes (especially going for a home run on 3rd and 10 instead of something higher percentage), IU's defense forced their first three-and-out of the day and the Cats punted the ball. The good news was that the three plays only took :14 off the clock. But with only one timeout left (clock management!), a lot of fans, including myself, wondered if we would ever see the ball again. The defense hadn't exactly been stopping IU on third down (IU had six drives of 9 plays or more) and the poor play calling of the last series and most of the game (abandoning the run late) didn't offer much hope.
However, much like after the Basanez interception, the Wildcat defense rose to the occasion and stuffed Indiana on three straight plays. Because IU passed on third down and the throw was incomplete (a crucial breakup by Marvin Ward, who -- get this -- TURNED AROUND on the pass play and tipped the ball), we didn't even need to burn our last timeout. Indiana punted and the Cats were 65 yards away from the end zone (thanks to a fantastic punt return by Mark Philmore, who nearly broke it), down 3 with 1:47 remaining.
Brett Basanez used some nice sideline passes to march downfield and work the clock (showing some nice leadership ability in the clutch), but questionable play calling again stalled the drive inside the 20 yard line (the QB draw on third down was fine, but why not to the middle of the field?). And instead of letting the clock run down, Northwestern called the quick timeout (clock management!) to set up the field goal.
Brian Huffman was a perfect microcosm of the NU team on this Saturday against IU -- he had played great last week against Ohio State but was at a subpar performance level today, missing from 27 and 48 earlier in the game. But like the NU team on Saturday, Huffman did juuuust enough to escape with the win, and with :34 second left, from a tough angle, Huffman's 32-yard field goal hit the left upright and bounced in. Just when you thought you had seen everything from the Cardiac Cats, a kind goalpoast bounce ties this game at 17-17 and -- despite our efforts to give Indiana time to make a last-second drive -- we had overtime football for a second straight week in Evanston.
Coin toss? Check. Antacid? Check. Defense first? Check. We were ready for overtime -- the second year in a row between these two teams, the second week in a row for fans at Ryan Field and for the third time this season for NU.
On IU's first play of overtime, our already dinged-up secondary (we missed Jeff Backes big-time) took a hit when Dominique Price was banged up and had to walk off for a play. Indiana went right back to that side of the field (smart call) and found a wide open receiver with no safety help for a 25-yard TD and a 24-17 lead.
Here's where things get extra wild for the Cats.
Everything Northwestern had been doing poorly on offense for the first 60 minutes of this game was reversed in overtime. Our play calling improved, our execution improved (for the most part) and our effort to punch the ball in greatly improved. After converting a 4th and 6 on a nifty pass to Philmore, the Cats moved the ball down to the 2 yard line for 3rd and goal. Instead of running up the gut (OK, maybe the play calling hadn't completely improved, but hang on for that second overtime) for two plays, NU called a Basanez rollout. Coverage and pressure soon turned this into a 20-yard rollout for Basanez the wrong way and just as every fan in purple was pleading for Basanez to throw it away to avoid the sack and make it 4th and 2, Basanez heaves the ball off his back foot ... seemingly trying to throw it away (or making a very ill advised throw across his body) but just hanging it up to be picked off. There are at least four or five white jerseys in the end zone just waiting to seal the game when out of nowhere, two hands of Taylor Jones come out of nowhere, leaping above the Hoosier hands to make an incredible touchdown catch that saved the game for Northwestern. 24-24, we have a second overtime. Wow!
Northwestern gets the ball first in OT#2 (after christening the north end of Ryan Field for an OT win last week, the action moved to the south end zone to give Hannibal a view) and we drove down to the 16 yard line, where the offense stalled and it was 4th and 1. Much like the first drive of the game, we decide to go for it (again, the right call). Much like the first drive, we line up in a jumbo set. But remember how I groaned at how we draw the defenders all inside the tight box? Well, Randy Walker called a play that took some G-U-T-S. Basanez took the snap and ran the option right and got rid of the ball to Herron. With everyone inside, Herron has the corner to himself and cruises in for the touchdown.
After calling a mediocre game at best, this one makes up for it. A bad pitch or a missed block and it's disaster with folks like me bemoaning why we didn't go up the middle. But it was a good pitch, a terrific block by Erryn Cobb and a big touchdown.
On Indiana's final possession, our secondary made nice plays on second and third down to force a 4th and 3 (they had to pass because our D took the run away) for the game. Indiana had converted these downs all day with our lax coverage and lack of pass rush. But again here, the coaches made up for the first 60 minutes with a gutsy call. For the second time all day, Northwestern brought the blitz and Demetrius Eaton ran untouched up the middle for the clinching sack.
They won't be making a T-shirt with this final score on it, but in the end, it's still a win. Whew.:)
* LUIS CASTILLO - When you look up "warrior" in the dictionary, #94's picture will be there. With Loren Howard gone before the season even began, our D-line needed a new leader and despite an injury that left Castillo with virtually only one arm, this guy has risen to the challenge and got some pressure when needed today while controlling the run.THINGS TO WORK ON
* TAYLOR JONES - When Jones dropped a wide open dump pass earlier in the game, I made the remark that he's in there to block, not catch. But in the first overtime, his arms rose from a pack of Hoosiers to magnificently snatch an errant Basanez throw out of midair for a touchdown. It was simply a great catch.
* NOAH HERRON - This guy wears Roger Craig's old number for a reason -- his legs never stop chugging after a hit and he continues to move the pile forward every time. He's also developed into an excellent receiver out of the backfield. The latest in a long line of Randy Walker running backs, Herron is taking Jason Wright's track last year and emerging into something special. Good to see the line (Noah's Ark?:) ) get going and NU's running game back in form.
Baz also did a nice job spreading around the touches to the receivers today (Brandon Horn was the favorite de jour) and our run defense was excellent (now if we can just catch some of those dropped interceptions).
* THREE AND OUT: We've done a great job this year of forcing third downs, now we gotta learn how to finish the series and get off the field.AROUND THE LEAGUE
* RED EYE: Were we tired? Reading the papers too much last week? Whatever it was, we blew a chance to put this one away early when our first three drives all move the ball to inside the 10 yard line and we only got 7 points. If we want to beat the Badgers or Boilers, we gotta score six inside the red zone. Period.
* TIME MANAGEMENT: We looked sloppy today in penalties, execution and especially time management. Burning timeouts is forgivable in the first half, but to do the same thing in the second half almost cost us big-time when we only had 1 left and still managed to get two chances to drive for the tie in the final 4 minutes. And if you're gonna call timeout to set up a field goal at the end of the half, wait until the clock is under:34!
* Huge win by WISCONSIN in stop one of a two-game road trip to OSU and Purdue. With Michigan off the schedule and Minnesota coming to Camp Randall after a Badger bye week, next Saturday's game in West Lafayette could be for the Roses. The Big Ten's last two unbeatens ... best offense vs. best defense ... gonna be a dandy next week! How in the heck is this NOT the ABC game? Michigan vs. Illinois? OSU @ Iowa? Gimme a friggin' break!GO CATS!!!
* PURDUE looked all-too human once again in Happy Valley, but escaped with a win over the Nittany Lions. The Boilers now have a two-game homestand against the only two other teams with unblemished league marks. Beat the Badgers and Wolverines in Ross-Ade Stadium the next two Saturdays, and that Boiler train can start heading west again.
* MICHIGAN toughens up in time to get a much-needed win over Minnesota to keep the jug and dash Gopher hopes of an unbeaten season. After that late trick-play TD on fourth down to run up the score a few weeks back by Glen Mason, gotta say that the score brought a smile to my face. Minny still has a favorable sked the rest of the way, but they need some help. As for Michigan, Lloyd finally woke up and realized he has the best group of receivers in the nation - USE THEM! Now they gotta root for Purdue to beat Bucky next week and that sets up a title clash the following weekend when Big Blue visits Purdue.
* MSU beat Illinois. Yawn. However, with the 3-3 mark at the midway point, if Sparty can get a home win next week over mopey Minnesota or upset the Buckeyes or Badgers after that, they could get back to 6-6 ... provided they win late games at Penn State and at Hawaii (hmm, that sounds
We had to work overtime, but in the end, we got the win and that was huge. After a tough start, we're back at .500 (a game ahead of where we were last year at this point) heading into the bye week. The road ahead isn't as favorable as last year, with four road games and our next two contests against the league's top two teams -- unbeaten Wisconsin in Madison and unbeaten Purdue at home. If we bring the effort we did for the Buckeye game, we can beat any team left on the schedule. But as we saw today, we can't take any game for granted either.
Rest up, Wildcats. You earned the chance to recover from some key injuries by rebounding after a tough start. It's a new season after the break with a .500 record and a chance to go bowling for a second straight season if we play to our potential.
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