In the immortal words of Ron Santo, "Boy oh boy..." This one was a hard one to watch as a Northwestern fan. I had been mostly confident going in, even despite last week's near collapse. I actually thought that such a close win would perhaps light a fire under the defense for this week. Instead, it looks like they never even got off the bus, much like the Bears' passing game of old.
It was a real shame too, because it ruined a career day by Mike Kafka who - get this - threw for 393 yards and 3 TDs (in the process completing 35 of his 42 passes), ran for a TD, and had a 24 yard reception (from Andrew Brewer, who, not withstanding his backup QB status is primarily a WR) for a TD. Oh, and he also broke a Northwestern record when he completed his first 16 passes in a row (the previous record being 15 in 1962). Yet, it all comes to naught because the defense also allowed Greg Paulus to throw for 346 yards and 2 TDs and let Delone Carter rush for 84 and 6 points of his own.
I do give the Northwestern offense as a whole immense credit for making this game as close as it was. It really seems like it shouldn't have been, as Northwestern managed to go down 17-0 within the first 10 minutes. The notes I took while watching the first quarter look something like this:
Missed tackle. Missed tackle. Turnover on first offensive play. More missed tackles. Sack. Dumb penalty. Dumb penalty x2. Bad punt. Missed tackle. Non-existent secondary. Sack AND dumb penalty.
Fortunately, football consists of four quarters and the Wildcats proved this admirably when they came out roaring in the second...
My week 2 coverage of Northwestern's close win against Eastern Michigan...
A recap of NU's offensive explosion in the season opener vs. Towson...
They put up 21 points in 11 minutes and took their first lead of the game. This was largely due to a switch over to a hurry-up offense and quite a few short-to-medium distance throws by Kafka. Watching the 'Cats put up those points really demonstrated to me how much Kafka's arm has improved. The last TD of that 21 point rush also showed his other side, as he managed to run it in himself. If he can continue to play like he did in this game for the rest of the season, then Northwestern is going to be a real threat in conference play. Provided, of course, that the defense shows up.
You'll notice that I wrote above that the 21 point surge gave NU its first lead of the day - this would be because just about every time the NU offense put together a scoring drive, the NU defense and special teams were busy coughing it right back up again. A large portion of this was due to what seemed like an endless stream of penalties. Across both the offense and the defense, NU was penalized 7 times for 57 yards - that's way too much. Granted, we're not talking triple digits here, but those penalties killed more NU drives and aborted more stops of Syracuse than I care to remember.
A quick aside here - if I ever hear the name "Greg Paulus" again I think I might throw one of my casebooks through my TV. The announcing crew on the ESPN 360 feed was so in love with him that for a second I thought Donovan McNabb had healed his cracked rib and decided to return to New York for one last NCAA game. I didn't think it was possible for Paulus to become MORE annoying after leaving Duke, but I guess I was wrong.
The rest of the game continued the see-saw nature of the first two quarters - NU would score when they went to a pass-first hurry-up offense, and they would stagnate when they tried to endlessly run the ball up the middle. I'm not sure if the lack of a good run game was because of the Orange defense or because of the absence of injured starting RB Stephen Simmons, but Jacob Schmidt managed to rush for only 30 yards on 10 touches. Contrast this with Arby Fields' 24 yards on 2 attempts, and I wonder if maybe it was just use of the wrong player.
The lack of Fields' presence in the game - though, I'd be remiss if I didn't quickly congratulate the other Fields (Demetrius Fields, for those of you keeping track) on his first career TD reception - as well as the mysterious disappearance of the modified no-huddle offense for stretches of time are real head scratchers for me. No one will ever mistake me for a grand football strategist, but if something is working for you - especially to the tune of 21 points in 11 minutes - why not keep using it until that stops being the case?
I really wish this game had been a win. If it had, I could have nominated Northwestern's wacky play which scored their fourth TD of the game for the Big 10 play of the week. After the NU defense sacked Paulus and forced a fumble, Kafka took a snap at around the 20 yard line. He lateraled the ball to Andrew Brewer, who then threw it back to him for a 24 yard TD reception. It was quite creative, and possibly the strangest play I have seen in college football. If the rest of NU's still mostly-secret play book is as intriguing as that, perhaps at the very least I'll be entertained while watching the rest of this season's games.
I don't even know what else can really be said about tonight. Kafka had a career day but it was all undone by a lackluster defensive effort and a single bad decision (his only INT of the game with :56 in the 4th quarter which set up the winning FG for Syracuse). Sure, the 'Cats were playing with a lot of injuries and it is true that they fought back from a 17 point deficit... but... if they don't find a way to figure out their defensive problems, and quickly, we could be looking at a serious regression from 2008.
Well, that's all she wrote (literally) for the 3rd week of Wildcat football. Join me next time as I bring my slightly deflated cheer of "Go U! NU!" to Ryan Field for the conference opener against the always pesky Golden Gophers...