This is a rivalry game that had produced a Big Ten champion in the last two years, but not this time. In a game like this, it was a shame somebody had to win.
Northwestern was basically two yards and one very late flag away from a 45-31 win, but a goal-line fumble, a bizarre series of play calls on three tries from the one yard line ... and a late touchdown called back by a suspect penalty call hurt the Cats. NU also had a late first-half possession inside the 20 killed by penalties and play calling, along with a couple other turnovers.SjT GAME BALLS
Despite all that help, the Illini did all they could to give the game away themselves, going into a second half lull after building a 24-7 lead and really only putting together one solid drive in the second half, which was just enough to get by. They also had a few calls go against them from the good ole' Big Ten officials, including a Brandon Lloyd touchdown that looked in bounds on the replay, and one of those darn halo calls where the Illini defender was a good five yards from the NU punt returner.
While we're on the subject of the officials, a side rant to close out a year of poor officiating from Big Ten crews (and one laughably bad ACC crew) at Ryan Field...What was most frustrating about this group was how long they would wait to make a call. Either they were on a 10-second tape delay, or it was the slowest group of zebras this side of the savannah on a hot summer day.However, even with all the embarassingly inept officiating, the Wildcats had ample opportunity to win this game. Turnovers hurt them early, and questionable coaching did 'em in late.
On the late NU touchdown called back, they flag didn't come out of the pocket until Jason Wright was in the end zone. On the Lloyd catch, the two officials seemed to look at each other, take time out to ponder theories of cold fusion and then finally signal out of bounds. Each team got a roughing the passer penalty that wasn't called until the officials saw whether or not the pass was complete. And the one thing this crew didn't call all day was holding, despite two of the more blatant jersey grabs seen this side of a clearance sale at the Locker Room. Both happened right in front of a ref and were seen by 25,000 people... but none of them had little yellow flags. Both teams had their share of justifiable gripes, but it is worth noting that the Illini didn't have a penalty on 'em until 28 minutes had elapsed on the game clock.
Clearly, a miserable year for Big Ten officiating had gotten to this crew -- they were unsure of themselves all day and looked lost, confused and gun-shy. They stopped play four times in the first quarter alone to go to the line and move the ball back or forth an inch. Maybe they just like the feel of pigskin? I can accept a questionable call or two, it comes with the territory -- as long as you make it right away. Throw the flag or don't -- don't wait until you see what happened on the play to decide whether or not it's a foul. It's a hold or it isn't! Sheesh!!! One pass interference call on Illinois took a good ten seconds of intense booing by the fans and three bounces of the ball on the grass before the officials reached into their pockets and finally made the call.
It was gross imcompetence, and in this case, it did have some impact on the game. We had one TD called back by a late flag and the refs weren't too sure on the opening goalline fumble call either. No replays were shown, but I'm not inclined to give this crew the benefit of the doubt.
The game started with a bang as Raheem Covington reminded us why he's an All Big Ten cornerback and jumped all over Jon Beutjer's first pass, returning the interception to the 10 yard line. First and goal, Northwestern -- and it looked like an early 7-0 lead as senior Kevin Lawrence dashed toward the end zone. As the purple-clad fans rose to their feet to celebrate, players started leaping on the ground and the Illini came up with the fumble and touchback.
The Illini put together an impressive drive, running all over the Cats defense and chewing up half the quarter to go up 7-0. NU countered with a quick drive of primarily pass playes (aided by a mobile Brett Basanez and his ability to find a receiver on a scramble) that ended with a Kunle Patrick score to tie the game. It wasn't a pretty first quarter, but it was all even -- one turnover, one touchdown apiece.
The second quarter was the killer for NU. With the running game established, the Illini started to go to their tall, talented receivers and just had their way with the Cats defense. The NU offense didn't help matters, with a mix of three-and-outs and turnovers rendering the O useless while the Illini scored 17 straight points to build 1 24-7 lead with a few minutes left.
Northwestern finally got the offense back on track and drove within the 20 as the quarter wound down, but a late flag and sack pushed the ball back to the 30. Instead of trying to get part of it back on the next two plays, we tried to go for it all at once. I have no problem with going deep once and awhile to keep the defense honest, but this just didn't make sense at the end of the half. Trying to get some points on the board before halftime, you don't want 3rd and loooong -- get chunks of it back and get in field goal range at least. Especially when you're not a great deep-ball team.
But the questionable coaching led to 4th and 22, and instead of trying a 47 yard field goal, we went for it. Again, I have no problem with going for it on fourth down -- field goals haven't been our strength lately and I actually wish we'd gone for it on a few fourth and shorts earlier in the game that were well within the "alumni zone" as Coach Randy Walker calls it -- but if you're going to go for it on fourth, why throw a deep bomb on 2nd and 22 and 3rd and 22? Why not get part of it back and make the fourth down more manageable?
The result was no points on the drive and a 24-7 halftime deficit. The most glaring statistic at the half was that the Illinois quarterback was outrushing the entire NU team! Throw in Antonio Harris' 120+ yards and you can see why it was such a big lead.
Another frustrating stat in the first half was the starting field position we wasted, and this continued all game. While the Cats pinned the Illini deep a couple times, we seemed to start every drive around the 35 or 40. I can't recall any drive started inside the 20, and our first possession started on the Illini 10, thanks to Convington. When your return game works hard to get you a short field on every possession, you have to get more than seven points.
The second half didn't start much better, as we got the kickoff and promptly punted three plays later (a score before the half and here could have cut the gap to three, but we let that slip away like so many other chances Saturday). But the Illini offense just seemed to turn on the autopilot coming out of the locker room. Suddenly, they weren't clicking or putting drives together and the Cats were the team controlling the clock and always on offense. But we just couldn't get that last yard.
After a field goal made it 24-10 and the D got another stop, the most frustrating, upsetting and angering series of the season began. The Cats drove it down to the goal line and appeared to score on first and goal to make it 24-17, but our good friends in the stripes spotted it at the 1 yard line. We had three tries to punch it in from the 1 yard line and make this a game again.
You would have hoped that the coaches learned their lesson from that awful goal line series against Ohio State earlier in the year... but nope. We still came out in the freakin' SHOTGUN. We didn't run a SINGLE QUARTERBACK SNEAK BEHIND OUR ALL-BIG TEN CENTER and we DIDN'T EVEN RUN the ball on fourth and goal. Instead, we came up with some wacky contraption trick play that fooled no one except our own blockers, throwing the ball BACKWARDS to a lineman and expecting him to beat four defenders to the goal line, four yards away.
Sorry, I had to get that out of my system. I've been a defender of Randy Walker and giving him at least one more year to prove himself with the young players and new coaches, but the responsibility on fourth down falls square on the head coach's head and Walker flat-out failed on this series and in other goal line playcalling against the Illini. I accept that you can't run it up the middle every play... actually, I don't accept that as any team worth a darn should be able to shove ahead for one friggin' yard in three plays, but I understand why you wouldn't run up the gut all the time. But can't we do it ONCE?!?!?! When you have seniors Austin King and Jeff Roehl on the line ready to hit someone, why not ONE STINKIN' SNEAK in six tries against the Buckeyes and Illini?!?!?!?! If you want to pass, do a bootleg or something that gives the mobile Basanez the option to run. And do it on THIRD DOWN!
It took so long for Wildcat fans (including myself) to stop pounding their fists in frustration and cussing under their breath after that series, that no one noticed that the Illini offense decided to actually play one series in the second half, putting together a nice balance of runs and deep passes to march 96 yards in mere seconds to extend the lead to 31-10, a two touchdown swing.
But amazingly, there was still more than a quarter left and the Wildcats were given several more chances to get back into the game as the Illinois offense went back into hibernation after that impressive drive.
The fourth quarter saw Northwestern finally get the running game going and Jason Wright had a couple nifty runs of several broken tackles. The Cats put together two solid scoring drives and had a third touchdown called back by that questionable holding call where the flag came after Wright was in the end zone (we turned it over a few plays later). The last-gasp onside kick was actually bobbled a bit by Illinois, but they held on and burned timeouts earlier came back to haunt NU as they couldn't stop the clock enough and had only 20 seconds to mount an 80-yard miracle drive. Even hiring the Michigan State clockkeeper couldn't help us there, as we just don't have a deep-ball threat and eventually threw an interception. Game over.
This one stings just as much as last year's in Champaign. Down there, we outplayed the Big Ten champions on their own field and came up short on the scoreboard. This year, the Illini were unimpressive victors yet again as they basically slept through the second half and won by default when the Cats shot themselves in the foot. Turnovers early, bad coaching late and questionable officiating throughout. One fumble at the one, one unbelievably awful series of play calls at the one, and one touchdown called back by the refs. You just can't win when you beat yourself like that. That third quarter series at the goal line is one that will irk fans for the next 364 days. Our seniors deserved better than that.
So the season of growing pains has come to an end. It's not as flat-out disappointing as last year's underachieving year, and certainly not as much of a letdown as the folks on the opposite sideline, as the Illini had big plans coming off a title run last year. But it's still a frustrating finish to see us find new ways to lose every week and not learn from our past mistakes, both in playing (i.e. how to tackle) or coaching (i.e. goalline playcalling).
Only a handful of seniors were on the field in purple and black. That's about the only silver lining in this season finale, as you hope the rest of the Cats have the desire to work hard the next nine months to become a better team. There is talent there on offense and the defense will have experience. The schedule in conference play gets tougher, but this is truly a make-or-break offseason for Walker and his staff. There's bowl game potential here and no one on the NU sidelines or in the stands should expect to be home for the holidays next year. The goal is within reach, now we'll see how this group of Cats responds.
To the game balls...
RAHEEM COVINGTON - Watching this guy improve the last few seasons has been a pleasure. He used to never turn his head around to see the ball, but by his senior year, he developed into one of the best cover cornerbacks in the Big Ten. From the outstanding performance against Charles Rogers in East Lansing to start the Big Ten season to a gritty day's work against Brandon Lloyd today, this kid faced some pretty talented receivers and made them work for every yard and every shot at the ball. If we could put his heart, desire and will to improve his game into every player on our defense, we'd get back to the smothering days of Pat Fitzgerald and the '95 defense.THINGS TO WORK ON
JON SCHWEIGHARDT - Though he was grossly underused throughout his four years in Evanston, Schweighardt was always a delight to watch. The only ball I can remember this guy dropping was the one today where he didn't have a defender within 20 yards and looked ahead before the ball arrived. Otherwise, you couldn't find a tougher, more clutch pair of hands this side of Brian Musso. Hopefully his work ethic and smart play on every single down rubbed off on the rest of the wideouts.
THE SENIORS - You could put Basanez or Wright here, but the rest of our seniors deserve the mention for their years of sweat and hustle for the purple and black. They had highs and lows and saw their numbers dwindle as the coaching change swept through Evanston, but they stuck it out and deserve a round of applause. Thank you.
Same story as all year here, so no explaination needed...
For those Wildcats not among the seniors, the 2003 season begins today. That's just the short list.
- STUPID PENALTIES
AROUND THE HORN
Congratulations to OHIO STATE on a deserving trip to the Fiesta Bowl. I never wanted Cooper to win the national title, but I can live with Tressel doing it. At least it will shut up all the naysayers around the country ripping apart Big Ten football. OSU in Tempe, Iowa in Pasadena and Penn State and Michigan are top 15 as well. Make no apologies Buckeyes -- you beat Washington State, Texas Tech, Penn State and Michigan. You found ways to win. You have an outstanding defense. You deserve to be there. No go and shock the world to beat Miami and bring a title back to the Big Ten after the pollsters let sympathy rob PSU and Michigan of one in the last decade.Aside from the anger over that goalline call, it's always sad to see another fantastic season of college football whiz by. Whether it's a winning or losing campaign, there's nothing better than a crisp autumn Saturday of college football, and I'm thankful for every game I get to see in person.
As for IOWA, it should be a fantastic Rose Bowl with the Cougars (should they rebound against UCLA) and Hawkeyes -- maybe the best bowl game of the season. An 8-0 Big Ten mark is a remarkable accomplishment and you're one of the 2 or 3 teams no one wants to play right now. But in your goalpost-munching mayhem, don't whine too much about the split title (or we'll confuse you with Lloyd Carr), You did lose to Iowa State... and it's not like the Big Ten hasn't had split titles several times in the last decade. You're new to this, but OSU fans have had to share with Wisconsin and NU among others without playing them. Just go out to Pasadena and enjoy college football's grandest tradition as it OUGHT to be -- Big Ten vs. Pac 10 on Jan. 1 in the afternoon in the Granddaddy of 'em All. No Hurricanes or Huskers in sight - thank God!
WISCONSIN was able to stay out of the police blotter long enough to snatch the Alamo Bowl bid away from Minnesota. Perhaps a tougher nonconference schedule would prepare you better for the Big Ten slate, Mr. Mason?
PURDUE rounded out the Big Ten's seven bowl slots by beating up on IU after a freak one-year abberation where the Hoosiers caught a glimpse of the Old Oaken Bucket. Even better news for Tiller -- with the BCS upgrade for Iowa, you no longer get the no-win Motor City Bowl berth, but the Big Ten's newest bowl berth in Nashville for the up-and-coming Music City Bowl. Yeeeee-haw!
With that said, a big thank you to all the hard-working students -- both those on the field in helmets and pads, and those on the sidelines in cheerleading and marching band uniforms. You're the reason why college football has a tradition and excitement that no other sport can match -
[Stephen J. Truog has his own NU Oriented Web Site, and reports on NU Sports through the NWU Sports List too.]
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