a perfect conference home mark for 2004 ... and it closes the season with the Wildcats on a five-game home win streak. Three of those wins came in overtime, the other two by three points each.SjT GAME BALLS
Talk about getting your money's worth!
On an overcast November Saturday in Evanston, instate rivals Illinois and Northwestern slugged it out for the 98th time in a mistake-filled game that may not have always been pretty, but provided a lot of excitement in the final minutes. Just as you'd expect on Senior Day at Northwestern.
On paper, the had everything to play for and the Illini nothing. But it's a rivalry game - so throw out those records. Plus, the walked into Champaign last year and literally walked over the Illini, not even bothering to throw a pass in the second half en route to a 37-20 rout. On top of that, Illinois coach Ron Turner is on his way out after three straight disappointing seasons, and there are few things in football more dangerous than a coach who has nothing to lose.
Northwestern's offense played perhaps its worst game of the season on Saturday. Brett Basanez looked to have aggrivated that shoulder injury or something else was wrong, because his throws were well off the mark. And the Illini clearly had watched game tapes of last year and were keyed in on the run. NU only ran 10 offensive plays in the first half and had a whopping zero first downs after 15 minutes.
To make matters worse, we also played -- by far -- our sloppiest game of the season. The Wildcats had made great strides in reducing the stupid penalties from last year ... usually isolating them into one drive per game, where we'd get 3 or 4 in a row to kill a promising series of plays, but then play self-inflicted-wound-free the rest of the day. On Saturday, NU compiled more penalty yards in the first quarter than actual yards ... and had it not been for one big pass play in the second, the same would have been true at the half.
A lot of those flags seemed suspicious to the disappointly small but loyal and loud crowd at Ryan Field. Often, the two or three officials around the play didn't see fit to call a penalty, but the back judge, a good 30 or 40 yards away, would run in late and toss a flag. Especially on punt returns. Either this guy just had lasik surgery or he's got a different interpretation of the rules than the rest of the zebras out there, because when fans in the upper deck are closer to the play than you as an official are, you shouldn't be the one making the call.
And the zebra follies didn't all cut against Northwestern either ... near the end of the half, NU ran a 6-yard play on 2nd and 17, but the official stepped in and signalled for the clock to stop ... for a measurement? Oops. There were :25 left on the clock and Turner had to be livid that this time wasn't running. Finally, when the refs noticed their error, they added time ... a second or two more than was on the clock when the play stopped. Some of the crew were officiating their final game and they were not going quietly into retirement, calling at least 16 penalties, with NU compiling a whopping 112 yards of penalty yardage. Ouch. Let's just say it wasn't a banner day for the players, coaches or officiating crew in Evanston.
Whatever the reason for NU's sloppy, mistake-prone play and inability to move the ball, the Wildcat defense did show up on Saturday. Despite the Illini enjoying starting field position around midfield for most of the day, they bent, but didn't break to the orange and blue attack. Illinois had one solid drive where they moved the ball downfield, but their other two TD drives were set up by a Basanez interception and a series of penalties on the punt return and defense. We were gashed more than you'd like by Illini back Pierre Thomas, who really showed a lot of escapability and potential ... but the D did their part to keep the game within a score at all times. And that was important, because given our lack of a passing game and inability to move on the ground, falling behind by 10 or 14 would have been disastrous.
The Cats offense somehow managed to strike first in the game. After a scoreless first quarter where the Illini dominated but were stripped of the ball near the goal line by NU's defense, the Cats took over and Basanez utilized his biggest asset - pocket mobility - to roll to the right and and find Ashton Aikens for a 44-yard gain on 3rd and 8. That energized the dormant attack for a few plays at least, and a few plays were all they needed. A reverse netted 2 yards to move the ball to the UI 36, and Noah Herron did the rest -- dashing through the Illini defense on two runs, the second being a a 23-yard scamper to the end zone, giving NU the game's opening touchdown.
The Illini quickly answered with their own impressive drive (aided by a nice kickoff return to midfield), and added a touchdown following the interception of Basanez (simply a bad read and too quick a throw off a play fake) to head into the locker room ahead 14-7. Illinois dominated the first half, doubling NU's time of possession and winning the field position war. The yardage was almost even, but throw in the Cats' penalties and the edge goes to UI again. Also, the Cats had as many first downs, five, as they did 3-and-outs. Would the offense wake up in the second half?
After exchanging punts in the second half, Northwestern put together its one impressive drive of the game (each team had one impressive drive ... one drive aided by a big play , the UI pickoff and the NU 44-yard pass, and one wild card -- a fake FG for UI, a punt return for NU -- before overtime). For a series, it looked like the Wildcat team that dominated the Illini in the trenches last year had finally emerged. The Cats shoved the ball right down the throats of the Illini. It started at the 22, but after
-- you guessed it -- a false start on NU, it became an 83-yard march downfield. A Baz scramble for a few ... a Noah release pass for a first down ... a Baz run ... a Terrell Jordan run ... a first down via Illinois penalty ... Noah on the option ... Jordan up the gut ... Baz again ... Noah gashing ahead for 14 ... Noah to the 1 ... Noah for SIX!
So after the penalty moved the ball to the 17, we attempted only one pass, and that was a swing pass to Herron. The rest of this game-tying drive was all on the offensive line. Northwestern pounded the ball right at the Illini and moved it downfield for the tying score. Momentum had swung Northwestern's way and both the fans in purple and those in ornage at Ryan Field felt a sense of deja vu all over again. The Cats had come out of the locker room trailing Illinois by a score, but were starting to manhandle the Illini and run over them for TDs on the ground. Would this be the wake-up call the O needed? Would this be the game-changing moment? Would the Illini wilt again? Would history repeat itself?
Well, no. The Cats held on the following UI series, thanks to a great chasedown sack by Loren Howard and had good field position. But the drive was killed by -- you guessed it -- a flag for holding (stupid
self-inflicted-wounds!) and the Cats punted. If it's a punt return in this game, then there must be a flag, and sure enough, our good friend the back judge came running a good 20 or 30 yards to air his dirty laundry and set up the Illini in strong field position. The D forced third down when -- you guessed it -- a flag comes in and Dominique Price is called for interference to keep the drive alive. The Illini capitalized and got down to the 1 yard line at the end of the third quarter, tied 14-14, when things got interesting.
You could feel a trick play coming from the opening kickoff. Turner was a coach with nothing to lose and it's tough to know what a coach will do when he can throw caution to the wind. But Turner played a fairly straightforward game for three quarters. No fake punts or fourth down plays on all those first half midfield possessions. Was he just lulling the Cats to sleep?
After a brilliant goal line stand by the Wildcat defense (great stuff on first down at the line ... great sack by Pickens on second down where UI barely got the ball away without a knee touching or a grounding call and another great stuff on third), the Illini lined up for the field goal to go ahead 17-14. But in the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar: "It's a TRAP!"
Northwestern went for the block, and the Illini kicker simply hurdled the diving defenders to walk into the end zone and give the Illini a 21-14 lead with 13:25 remaining.
So now it was time for the Cats to wake up and for the O to take over, right? Not quite. NU goes 3-and-out and asks the defense to keep them in the game. They hold, and the Cats get the ball back at the 7 yard line with 7 minutes remaining. A couple of nice passes to Sean Herbert on Baz rollouts moves the ball up to midfield, but the Cats stall at midfield. After going for it on 4th and 2 (with Noah's sheer willpower the only reason NU made the first down), Randy Walker opted to punt on 4th and 6 with just over 4 minutes remaining. We had three timeouts, but the pressure was all on the Wildcat defense.
Again, the D stood up and held the Illini to a 3-and-out with 2:29 remaining in the game and forced the Illinois punt. Time was ticking away and a trick play by the Illini on special teams was looking more and more like it would spoil Northwestern's season. Would the Cardiac Cats and their offense finally wake up NOW and get back in this game before it was too late?
Nope ... but only because they never got a chance. A booming Illinois punt sent Jeff Backes retreating to the 28 yard line. The Ohio speedster turned around, shook off a couple Illini tackles and raced 72 yards to the end zone to tie the game. Welcome back, Mr.Backes! After that dazzling return at Minnesota, we've really missed this guy -- on defense for sure, but especially on special teams. After the Illini surprised NU with a special teams TD off a trick play, NU returned the favor with a trick of its own -- rare special teams execution and a game-changing touchdown.
But we weren't done with special teams. With 2:12 left, Wildcat fans had barely got done celebrating when they had flashbacks to the 2001 MSU game and Charles Rodgers answering an NU punt return TD with his own kickoff return for a TD. Pierre Thomas nearly duplicated the feat, racing the ensuing kickoff back to the NU 30. And with 2:00 left, the Illini were 30 yards away from beating their in-state rival.
The Wildcat defense came through again, though, bending a bit but forcing the field goal attempt with Illinois' freshman kicker. Mr. Reda may not be Mr. Nugent from OSU yet, but they do share a common trait in 2004 ... missing a clutch field goal kick in Ryan Field. With the game on the line, Reda hooked it wide left and guess what? We. Have. OVERTIME. For the fourth time this season and the third time in Ryan Field, 60 minutes was not enough time to determine a winner in a Northwestern football game.
Northwestern lost the toss and got the ball first. The offense didn't play a good game today, but they did show up when it counted, promptly driving to the end zone in overtime, picking up the blitz well and running the ball. The game-winning touchdown came on a great call on 3rd and 2, faking the run and rolling Baz out. He threw it to Jonathan Fields, who had dropped two sure-catches earlier but snagged this one for six.
Once again, this game turned to the defense with NU players, coaches and fans pleading with the D to salvage a win out of a sloppy game. The D delivered, forcing the Illini to fourth down twice on their series from the 25. The first time, UI converted by barely crossing the 15. The second time, there was a little contact but -- surprise! -- no flag thrown. Not even from 30 yards downfield. The pass fell to the ground and the purple people erupted in joy once again. The four Big Ten games in Ryan Field this year literally came down to the last play, and the Cats emerged victorious in all four. Bad for the ticker perhaps, but some exciting and extraordinary football.
Whew. Three OT games at home ... four overall ... a couple more that came down to the final minutes ... just another year of Wildcat football, folks. We didn't play our best game today by a longshot, but when it came down to crunchtime, this special group of Wildcats found enough to win the game. And winning without your best stuff is a sign of a solid team. Hopefully they can do it again next week so this incredible class of seniors can finish their college careers in a bowl game. How great is this group? Well ...
Consider that this season, NU ...
- Finished 5-3, in sole possession of fourth place in the Big Ten
- Ensured a fifth .500 or better (in league play and overall) season in the last decade
- Is one game away from a fifth bowl trip in ten years
- Went 5-1 at Ryan Field, 4-0 in Big Ten games
- Has a current home winning streak of five games
- Defeated (at the time) ranked teams in Ohio State and Purdue and lost to only one (at the time) unranked team ... in triple overtime, on the road in the opener
Consider that at one time or another, our quarterback, top running back, top receiver, top D-lineman and starting linebacker and cornerback have been injured this season, there were plenty of chances to pack it in.
Consider how this team fought back after two heartbreaking losses to start the season and a 1-3 September with a tough Big Ten slate ahead of us. We finished the season strong (winning 6 of the last 8 if we can win at
Hawaii) for a second straight season and have a chance to go bowling.
Thank you seniors. The fifth year seniors have a chance to go to three bowls in their NU career -- something no other Cats class has done. Your leadership has helped build this program. Hopefully you have two more games in purple remaining. It was a pleasure to watch each of you play for the past four or five years.
Thank you NUMB seniors ... cheerleading and Ladycat seniors ... and student section seniors. Pro football, while a great sport, can't compare to the excitement of college football and each of you are a huge reason why autumn Saturdays in Evanston are so special.
Thank you seniors.
* NOAH HERRON: He didn't top 100, but he scored two big touchdowns and passed some of the carries off to T.J. to build for the future. And on those carries Jordan had, Herron demonstrated an impressive blocking ability, busting holes on at least three nice runs. This guy's got it all -- he showed breakaway speed last week at Michigan, he showed toughness on the 4th and 2 call Saturday where Noah was hit at the line of scrimmage and simply willed his way over the two needed yards of turf. He blocks, he catches, he's licked any semblance of a fumble problem he had last year. Noah Herron is the best running back in the Big Ten this year, period. And while we've seen some good backs in Evanston during the last decade, from the gifted Autry to the gritty Anderson to the hard-working Wright, I dunno if we've seen as complete a back as Herron. This kid's special and hopefully the pro scouts will look at all the things he brings to the table and find a way to use him somewhere in the NFL next season.THINGS TO WORK ON
* HOWARD, CASTILLO, CLARK, McGARIGLE, PICKENS, ROACH AND THE DEFENSE: The O didn't show for most of the day and it was up to the D to keep us in the game. They bent, but did not break -- always keeping the Cats within a play of the lead. Castillo made some Herculean efforts to stuff the run, McGarigle is a tackling machine much like his mentor, old #51 on the sidelines, and Howard was just huge with those two sacks and other pressure moments. If only we'd have had him for the whole season ... but it was a solid defensive game, with a nice goal-line stand to boot, that kept our bowl hopes alive and typified how far this unit has come this year. You can't change your talent level overnight, but you can change your attitude and the way you play as a team. These guys are primarily the same unit gashed left and right the last few years. This year they've made tremendous strides in making opponents one-dimensional and doing enough to get the win. Kudos!
* JEFF BACKES: Wow. You wanna talk about a game breaker? After being tripped up by the kicker at the NU 40 on his TD return, Backes was a mere arm's length from the Illini defender. But from that point on, with the defender in full run and Backes tripped up, the 40-yard-dash wasn't even close. Backes breaks away from the defenders and scores. THAT's break-away speed!
* PENALTIES: I don't care if you had Big XII refs, you're playing Texas and you're wearing a KU helmet ... 11 penalties for 112 yards is inexcusible. Some of those may have been questionable, but a lot were stupid false starts, sloppy holds and mental mistakes. We'd done so well on limiting these all season ... hopefully this is a one-game blip on that mark.AROUND THE LEAGUE
* COME TO PLAY: The offense simply did not show up today. We never looked energized. We never got in sync save one or two drives. And we never got a rhythm going. We have to have a list of "starter" plays that are tried and true yardage gainers to go to when we're stumbling to find some momentum. And the line has to live up to its dominant potential on every series, not just one drive.
* FOCUS: Memo to the NU team and coaches ... Hawaii is a beautiful place. Thanksgiving is a family holiday. It's unfortunate that you have to miss out a bit on both of those, but this isn't a game to take lightly. Focus on coming ready to play, playing smart and playing together and after 60 minutes, you'll be back in the bowl scene. Get it done!
* After years of teams like Wisconsin and Northwestern watching "The Game" and cheering for a Wolverine upset of the Buckeyes, it's fitting in this bizarro world that the BUCKEYES play their game of the year and beat the Wolverines ... only to watch MICHIGAN back door it into the Rose Bowl anyway. A heck of a win under pressure and another road collapse for Carr as his superfrosh finally showed their age. Now the OSU faithful have to be thinking "we finally found a coach who beats Michigan consistently ... only to have him get himself fired in a scandal? UGH!"GO CATS!!! BEAT HAWAII!!!
* The Big Ten has some of the nation's great coaches. John L. Smith has worked near miracles his first two years in East Lansing. And Barry Alvarez and Jim Tressel are as good as it gets. But no one has matched the job this year of Kirk Ferentz at IOWA. These guys have been forced by injury to try everyone but the waterboy at running back ... yet the haven't lost since the end of September. Seven straight Big Ten wins later, including a rousing thrashing of Wisconsin today, and the Hawkeyes have Ferentz' second Big Ten title in three years. He's taken the Hawkeyes to three straight New Year's bowls ... with a different offensive backfield each year. Amazing.
* As for WISCONSIN ... what a complete collapse to close the season. I'd say it's unheard of, except that it almost mirrors Purdue's midyear collapse following their loss to the Badgers. Here, Wisconsin rises to #4 and looks awesome in blitzing Minnesota in the home finale. Then they hit the road and that cocky swagger and trash-talkin' defense fails to show up for two straight weeks in East Lansing and Iowa City. And this happens when everyone's back from injury and the freshmen have had nine games under their belt? What happened?
* Perhaps PENN STATE can designate every home game Senior Day next year? The Lions play about as well as anyone in the home finale and wind up scoring almost more today than they did all year. In the process, MSU's juggernaut comes unglued and the Motor City Bowl official weep bitterly. With all of that defense back next year, if JoePa can get the O to be even mediocre, the Lions could give the old coach a heck of a season to retire on ... perhaps.
* PURDUE rolls to the bucket. Yawn. They beat the Buckeyes, but the OSU name and that big win over Michigan may mean that the Boilers get passed up in the bowl picture. Oh well, they can cry all the way to Evanston, where a team that beat BOTH the Boilers and Buckeyes will likely get passed over in the league bowl picks. Ugh.
So now it all comes down to the final game again this year. Win and we're in the postseason for the second straight year. Lots of distractions await on the islands, along with a powerful offense and veteran quarterback ... no time for turkey, just get it done!
PS - Fun thought of the week ... if the NCAA had not added OT, NU's record now could be 3-4-4.:)
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