Minute details

Forget the first quarter – recently, Northwestern has been struggling in the first minute. In each of the last two games in which NU has started on defense, including Saturday's win against Iowa, the Cats have given up a touchdown within three plays. And the last time NU started with the ball on O? Fumble on play No. 2. Purple Reign takes a closer look at the early-game sleepwalking.

Winning makes everything seem all right, no? This was highlighted beautifully in the World Series that just culminated in another Yankees title. Joe Girardi announced during the American League Championship Series that he'd be shrinking his rotation and having his pitchers pitch on three days' rest.

Worked out fine, but think if it didn't. What if CC Sabathia went out and got shelled in Game 4 of the ALCS (instead of pitching eight innings one one-run ball)? And what if Andy Pettitte – who had a mixed history with pitching on short rest – couldn't hack it in Game 6 of the World Series with only three days off?

Well, no one cares about the what ifs. Sabathia was on point, Pettitte won the decisive game of the Series, and Girardi's move to shorten the rotation proved fruitful. Winning made it a moot point that the pitchers had fewer days off. If the Yanks had lost, though, Girardi would have been ridiculed mercilessly.

Something similar has happened recently with Northwestern football. It's not exactly the same, of course. You can only take analogies so far when comparing major league baseball and college football. But it works (kind of) nonetheless:

Just as winning the Series rendered the three-days-rest decision irrelevant, so, too, has Northwestern's 2-1 record the last three weeks – including an attention-grabbing win at then-No. 4 Iowa – masked the fact that Northwestern has been woeful to open up games.

And this isn't just a first quarter* thing. No, it's a first minute thing. In the last three weeks, Northwestern has been sleepwalking in the games' opening minute. Take a look at the first few plays from each of the last two games:

vs Indiana, Oct. 24
Play No. 1: 70-yard TD run by UI's Darius Willis

vs Penn State, Oct. 31
Play No. 1: 13-yard pass from Mike Kafka to Andrew Brewer
Play No. 2: Kafka fumble, recovered by PSU's Jack Crawford

vs. Iowa, Nov. 7 Play No. 1: Incomplete pass by Iowa's Ricky Stanzi
Play No. 2: Three-yard run by Brandon Wegher
Play No. 3: 74-yard TD pass from Stanzi to Marvin McNutt

And going back a few weeks, to the Purdue game, Arby Fields fumbled the ball on the opening play of the game.

* It's a first quarter thing, too. In the past three weeks, NU has been outscored 27-3 in the first quarter. The Cats were blanked by Indiana and Iowa, trailing 14-0 and 10-0, respectively, in those two. They actually were even with Penn State, tied 3-3 after the first.

If you don't count the Towson, Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan games – basically, if you don't count the non-conference, non-BCS teams – Northwestern has been outscored 65-9 in the first quarter this season. And 14-0 in the first minute with a -2 turnover margin.

And there have been early jitters that have come just outside the opening minute. Against Syracuse, the Cats gave up a field goal after 2:27. Then, on the ensuing drive, Kafka fumbled it on the very first play, and the Orange scored a TD a moment later. And against Minnesota, Northwestern let the Gophers waltz 59 yards in just five plays for an opening-drive touchdown. The calamity in those games came outside the first minute, but just barely.

It's only lowly Towson, Eastern Michigan and Miami* – and Penn State, which was sleepwalking itself – that haven't pounded the Cats in the opening minutes.

* This week's update on NU's hapless non-conference opponents. After notching its first win of the season last week, Miami lost to Temple on Saturday by two. And that was BY FAR the best that any of these three teams did. The next best was Syracuse, which lost by 27. While remaining winless, Eastern Michigan lost 50-6 to Toledo (which, ironically, is Miami's lone win). And Towson was crushed 31-0 by William & Mary.

What's interesting is that NU is winning these slow-start games. In three of the four games in which NU has done something abysmal in the first minute, the Cats have won. But if cellar-dwelling Indiana would have pulled the upset in Evanston, or if Purdue didn't have six turnovers, or if NU had lost a close one to Iowa, then the opening-minute brain locks would be devastating.

Fitz hasn't really addressed the slow-start syndrome much because, well, he hasn't had to. After the Indiana game the theme was the dramatic comeback. After the Penn State game, the talk was about Kafka's injury and the Nittany Lions' fourth-quarter outburst. And after the Iowa game – well, when you knock off the No. 4 team in the nation on the road, no one wants to talk about the opening-minute mistake. There were questions about the two-QB system, about Ricky Stanzi's injury, about late-season momentum. But not about the (repeated) opening-minute foibles.

Northwestern has been good enough in most games to overcome the early problems. Hopefully the Cats are awake for this week's 11 a.m. kickoff.

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