SjT: NU 17 Michigan 33

As the lights went on at Ryan Field Saturday night, the crowd was ready. The students were in a frenzy. The weather was perfect for an autumn clash between ranked teams. The sky-cam of ESPN prime time national football was whizzing by overhead. And everything was in place for the Northwestern Wildcats to make a statement. Just one thing was missing. The offense

Stephen J. Truog's disappointing report from Ryan Field....
Brett Basanez, Tyrell Sutton and the rest of the purple-powered attack that had carved up defenses the last month was not ready for prime time and had their worst game of the year at the worst time as Northwestern fell to Michigan, 17-33.

The game started like a shootout, with Basanez looking every bit like the best quarterback in the league, perfect on his first 7 attempts, eclipsing 100 yards with ease and making several "wow!" needle-in-a-haystack throws. Early turnovers, however, slowed the Wildcat momentum.

A late surge before half gave the fans hope that the shootout would resume, but both teams came out of the locker room to play perhaps the most boring second half of football in the last decade at Ryan Field. The Cats were hampered by penalties on offense while Michigan was hampered by Lloyd Carr's usual conservative play calling. After scoring a combined 21 points in the first seven minutes of the game, there were a grand total of two field goals in the last 30 minutes as NU's homecoming limped to a disappointing finish.

The story of the first half was turnovers by the offense – a key fumble on the Cats' first drive by Sutton turned what was about to be a 7-7 game into a 14-0 Michigan lead. And a mixup of communications on the route by Shaun Herbert and Basanez led to an early interception. The Wolverines did their best to even things out with a few turnovers of their own, but the early miscues clearly shook the confidence of the NU offense – one that had come out of the locker room on fire and electrified by a purple-frenzied crowd.

The story of the second half was penalties by the offense – each of the five drives in the third quarter contained a crucial holding call to turn a first down or 2nd and short into 2nd and 20 or 3rd and long. Some were earned, but some of those whistles sure seemed suspicious in their timing. After a first half where literally anything went and nothing was called (even a late hit on Baz that brought Coach Walker 15 yards on to the field to protest a shot on his star senior), the refs came out of the locker room and seemed intent on killing any momentum the Cats got going in the third. Was it the difference in the game?

I know we didn't deserve to win, but I also know we weren't the only ones committing penalties in the second half. And the way it came once on each drive just destroyed any attempts to find a rhythm.

But the story of the game overall was the NU offense. It was almost as if someone had swapped Mike Dunbar's playbook from last year with his one from this year before the game, We never established a running game. We seldom threw it downfield (and the times we did resulted in two big touchdowns) or over the middle. And the second half was chock full of 3-yard outs that Michigan's defense was jumping on all day, miserably executed screen attempts and strung out runs that went laterally but not vertically.

We just had the wrong game plan for Michigan's quick linebackers and defense. We didn't punch it up the middle or pass over the middle deep. We played right into their strength. A typical groan-inducing call came late in the game when we were still in the game and had 3rd and long and proceeded to run a backwards pass on another failed screen attempt.

The amazing thing is that Northwestern was still in the game until midway through the fourth quarter. The defense didn't play a good game, but they did get a few stops (but credit much of that to Michigan's conservative play calling) and forced their usual amount of turnovers – including a dazzling interception by Marques Cole and a gritty pick by Tim McGarrigle in the second half that should have ignited a rally. But as much as the purple-clad crowd wanted to get back into the game, the offense just sputtered and fizzled. The special teams did a good job of keeping Wolverine Steve Breaston in check despite numerous punts from the shadow of our goal post.

The one bright spot for the O aside from Baz' sizzling start was Mark Philmore. He came to play Saturday, making some great catches and did everything in his power to spark the team. After Sutton's early fumble and Michigan's defensive touchdown made it 14-0, Baz quickly spotted a mismatch and hit Philmore for a long pass (one of our few deep throws on the day) to cut the deficit in half. And after the D held Michigan to a field goal before half with the score 27-10, Baz hit Philmore again on a perfectly thrown ball and incredible catch to cap a 50-second scoring drive and make it 27-17 heading into the locker room.

But the 3-and-out as we came out of halftime was just the start of the miserable final 30 minutes. Michigan got two field goals and the NU defense kept it within striking distance, but we never had a chance with our dink-and-dunk play calling against Michigan's linebackers. We never stretched the field vertically or got Sutton and the ground game going in the second half.

By the time the lights went out, the Cats had let a big opportunity slip away and were held to under 20 points for the first time all season.

After the ASU and PSU losses, expectations sank for this team and they were clearly not as bad as feared. But after the last three weeks and two wins over ranked teams, expectations soared just as quickly and the Cats were not as good as we hoped. At the end of the day, the loss hurts … but I think at the start of the season, most NU fans would have been encouraged to see the team at 5-3 at this point.

We need to bounce back in a hurry to catch a rested Iowa team at home next week in the Dyche Stadium finale for the season. I hope that the fans who showed up in purple and made all the noise for Saturday's game don't take the loss too hard and jump off the bandwagon, because #14, #41 and the rest of our seniors deserve to be saluted and thanked for their years of play in purple on Senior Day. We're still one win from a bowl (and from our third straight 6-win and non-losing conference season) and it would be sweet to get that postseason-clinching victory over the hated Hawkeyes who have had our number lately.

One other note on the crowd last night – they wore purple, the stood on third down and they created an electrifying atmosphere for the recruits, alumni and national audience. WELL DONE!

We kept waiting for a second half spark to bring them back in, but it never came – still, the effort was appreciated. And Michigan brought more fans than I remember them bringing to Evanston before (which is odd because a 3-loss season is a big disappointment for them, yet they still came so they deserve credit) – they were vocal yet courteous and classy for the most part and it was just a great atmosphere for college football and great to see that environment in Evanston (of course, I'd have preferred if Michigan had played that way against NOTRE DAME instead!).

GAME BALLS
* Mark Philmore – He may have had a clash or two with the coaches earlier in the year, but Philmore's stepped it up lately and really showcased his skills for the prime time audience. His leadership and example can only benefit our deep group of receivers for next year.

* The secondary – I'll give this much-maligned group a game ball for a solid game. Whether it was by gameplan or not, Michigan never hit the deep backbreaker on us that PSU did in their game, and Avant and Breaston are two of the more talented wideouts in the nation. They tried once and Cole made them pay by using his speed to simply want the ball more and come up with the pick. And there was one play in the first half down by the goal line on third down where one of our backs (It was Deante Battle) got an amazing jam on Avant at the line. Chad Henne and Lloyd Carr cried foul for a flag, but it was such a strong jam (and within 5 yards before the ball was thrown) that it just stunned Avant.

* The fans – Great atmosphere and great energy. Sadly, the offense couldn't feed off of it and get back in the game in the second half. Ryan Field was one play away from exploding in pandemonium all night and you could feel the anticipation, but no one ever got that spark. Still, watching the ESPN rebroadcast and seeing that sea of purple haze still gives me goosebumps!

THINGS TO WORK ON

* Mental attitude – The early turnovers and the second-half zebras really affected our offense more than any maize and blue scheme. We were supposed to be tougher than that and overcome that – bounce back next week, gentlemen!

* Offensive play calling – After near flawless game plans the last month, the coaching staff laid a giant egg with the Michigan game plan – feeding into their defensive strengths and never adjusting once they took our short outs and screens away to spread the ball vertically or get the ground game going forward and not strung out laterally.

* Turnovers – When the defense forces four turnovers and only allows two touchdowns despite Michigan enjoying great field position all day, we should win with our offense. But we turned it over almost as many times and even worse, allowed Michigan to score off of the turnovers.

AROUND THE LEAGUE
* WISCONSIN struggled a bit with the defenseless ILLINI and PENN STATE didn't exactly crush PURDUE, but it's gonna be a dandy of a showdown in Happy Valley next week as the Badgers and Lions (who both hold tiebreaks over Ohio State) battle for what very well could be the Big Ten title and BCS berth.

* Speaking of OHIO STATE, their offense exploded … but how did they allow 31 to MINNESOTA?

* MSU kept Motor City hopes alive by beating INDIANA, but the Hoosiers just need to win those home dates with Minny and Purdue to get themselves into a bowl. So only Purdue and Illinois are eliminated from the bowl chase and since the next lowest team has only 4 losses, no one will be next week. Thus, with two weeks left in the season in mid-November, the Big Ten will 3-4 or more teams within a game of first and nine teams with legitimate shots at a bowl. What a league!

Well, if we were comparing this run to 1995 and 2000 where the Cats came into homecoming off a big 2-game roadtrip and with momentum to prove itself nationally, then homecoming 2005 felt much more like the 2000 disappointment against Purdue than the 1995 shutout of Wisconsin. It was a shame to waste such a beautiful night and amazing atmosphere with our worst offensive game of the year.

Yet, we still need to keep things in perspective and remember that the Cats are 5-3. The big game now becomes Iowa. Nothing's a given in the Big Ten for sure, but it's going to be tough to win in Columbus on Senior Day and it's also tough to see Illinois' defense stopping the Cats. So our home finale with Iowa becomes what could be the difference in a 7-4 season that could see a bowl trip to Texas (perhaps as high as a return to beautiful San Antonio? Though I still think Nashville may be our destination with the reps of other teams ahead of us) … and a 6-5 campaign that could end with a Motor City rematch with Bowling Green. Beating the Hawkeyes alone should be motivation enough, but the big difference in bowl placement is a factor as well. Bounce back Cats! Shake it off O!

GO CATS!!!
-SjT


Stephen J. Truog has his own NU oriented Web Site
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