Wow. Quite a debate on the LTP board about the various problems and challenges that contributed to the 17 point squandered lead against Michigan State. The fake punt made SportsCenter’s open and was also a cut-in across the country as the entire nation was checking in on NU’s seemingly sure upset. If my cell phone is any indication of national interest than wow – I’ve never received more texts, calls or emails than I did today other than the Outback Bowl. Yet, at the end of the day the ‘Cats lost and Kirk Cousins was phenomenal. Yes, unfortunately, we did not get nearly enough pressure on him, but he repeatedly threaded some impressive needles including big play after big play in to the wind in an incredible 3rd quarter.
The ‘Cats played 58 solid minutes of football against the best team we’ll face all year. We can all bitch and moan, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that was a heck of a team we faced. Kudos to our preparation and the first half defense. Kudos to Adonis Smith for running like a champion. Kudos to Dan Persa for playing like a warrior and sacrificing everything he had to try and carry us home. Let’s break it down.
Dan Persa’s Heart – What would we be without Persa? On a day when he was not Persa-like in the air, he simply made gutsy play after gutsy play picking up huge 1st downs by diving, spinning and cutting back to do whatever he had to and his 3 rushing TDs staked us to a 10-point 4th quarter lead. Persa finished with 18-29 for 187 yds, 3 rushing TDs and 1 bad INT. He had another 87 yards of GROSS rushing yards that was crushed by 35 yards of sacks. Our last two drives were ones to forget, but Persa took shot after shot based in part to an awful performance by the O-line. I’ll take this kid any day of the week.
Stefan Demos – The much-maligned placekicker did everything he could despite being significantly injured by making a TD-saving hit on a kickoff. Demos looks to be in bad shape, but came through on FGs and kickoffs today.
Freshmen Phenoms – WR Rashad Lawrence was simply fantastic making big play after big play including a huge 1st quarter haul. Venric Mark had a nifty run (nice block Mike Trumpy!) and is now in the punt return/kickoff return slot (man, did he miss that one kickoff that Arby bailed him out on!). Adonis Smith was sensational racking up 50 yards on 10 carries but more importantly making positive plays nearly every time he touched the rock including a pile moving run that hasn’t been seen since the Tyrell Sutton era. Adonis- the ball is yours.
Play-calling – Yup, after two weeks of squawking, I thought we called a good game on offense. Persa’s 22 carries were a combination of good downfield coverage and poor line protection causing early scrambles on at least half of those rushes. Late in the 4th we simply didn’t execute. Again, poor O-line discipline killed us both in protection and dumb penalties. Al Netter’s personal foul on the 1st play of the ‘Cats final drive down 28-27 was inexcusable. I can’t remember a Fitz team with more personal fouls. Sickening.
Gameday Atmosphere – Yes, the 41,000+ had way too much green, but it was a great atmosphere. I still believe we’ll get to 8-4 and there is much to root for the rest of the way, but I truly think the days of 40,000 plus are here through 2011. That place got loud today – now, once we get it 90% purple it will even be better, but still pretty good.
Third Down Conversions – NU was solid on 3rd down once again going 8-16 and also limited Sparty to 5-14 on third down.
NU Rushing game- In one of those cliched “if you had told me…” reflections that the ‘Cats would rush for
Jordan Mabin – Obviously, THE play of the game was the 4th and 11 fake punt by Michigan State (insert Notre Dame flashback here) by Aaron (heretofore known as Aaron F-in) Bates after they sucked us in with a delay of game penalty. Fitz had NU in “punt safe coverage” and we covered it as if it was a fake. Bottom-line is Mabin simply blew the coverage as he got spun around and the frosh Farlow nabbed a floater. It felt like Hunter Bates took forever to close as well. We simply need to make that play when we have the proper coverage called. Compounding it all is the contradictory postgame reports that include Fitz talking about how on one hand they talked all week long about the fake punt, but didn’t see it coming on THAT play and Mabin’s admisison that we simply got outcoached on that play and he didn’t suspect it. Huh?
Jacob Schmidt’s goal-line fumble – Obviously, we all were screaming after that fumble by Jacob to have the subsequent goal line plays for Persa under center. I can’t remember a more mistake-prone NU team. Costly, costly mistake and unfortunately Jacob got hurt to add insult to injury on the play.
O-Line – 8 sacks. EIGHT. Yes, Dan Persa has to learn to get rid of the ball a tad earlier, but he also avoided four or five other sacks by making magic happen with early pocket exits. Persa took lick after lick on quick release plays as well. Throw in several awful, dumb penalties and as Fitz said in the postgame – you can’t just talk about discipline, you need to have it. He threatened personnel changes to prove it. What the heck has happened here?
Killer Instinct – I was thrilled we got the ball back down 1 with 2-minutes to go as opposed to trying to wait out a last second Sparty clock-milking TD. However, we simply don’t have that put away instinct that we’ve come to know. The bonehead Netter penalty that put us at 2nd and 25 was a killer. Persa was also slinging from his back on that drive. However, between the fake punt, and inability to get any kind of drive on our last two drives, again – like Purdue, we have proven we can’t put teams away. Bottom-line, I don’t care if it is the #1 team in the nation – you can’t blow 17 point leads.
2nd Half Defense – Hank took the gas pedal off the playcalling as Sparty racked up 28 second half points. We started sagging in coverage in the third quarter and playing way too far off the line. We did a poor job of getting pressure on Cousins and seemed rather conservative on blitzes to start the half.
Persa’s miss of Ebert on 4th down– Man, was Jeremy open. Man, did Dan sail that sure 1st down WAY over Jeremy’s head on 4th and 11 that would’ve put us near mid-field down 1 point with 1:30 or so to go. Dan doesn’t miss that. Ever. What a tough, tough miss.
Like you – I’m crushed. Devastated. However, I’m confident we’re going to rebound and come out strong and beat Indiana. There is a lot of season left and I’m sticking to my 8 wins. We’ve got a ton of work to do and our O-line is my biggest concern. I hate to admit I’m sneaking a peak ahead to 2011 when I think we’ll be having our best year by far in the Fitz era, but man, do we have some work to do on the line. At the end of the day, our program is firmly planted as a middle of the pack program right now. We’ve been on the brink of the upper tier for the past two seasons, but leading the #7 team for all 58 minutes before folding isn’t going to cut it after that kind of a lead. I simply hope we don’t go in to overthink against a god awful Indiana defense. We need to throw and throw a lot. We also need to ensure Adonis Smith gets lots of reps the rest of the season to help him grow. I was really impressed by him, but disappointed we continued to pull him out after such positive plays.
I think as much pain as we’re enduring, I’m happy to see Fitz at least embracing the questions we are all asking. From his postgame speech:
“I think our entire program will look at this game with a very critical eye, and guys will have to swallow a pretty heavy pill. You look at yourself in the mirror, me included. Did I do the right things to get the guys ready to go? Did I say the right things at halftime?”
He also lit in to the lack of discipline on the team and lashed out at the team and himself for the letdown. We all felt the momentum and even though we were up 17-0, not a ‘Cat fan in the house didn’t reference the 2006 epic collapse. The second half was a series of Michigan State momentum tidal waves that we seemed to stem with a good drive here or there, but it wasn’t enough.
This one is tough to swallow. Somehow, for me, not as tough to swallow as the Purdue game which STILL has me steaming. We’ve got to find a way to protect Persa and again, we need to find ways to get guys open. I’m somehow optimistic, that we’ll turn this around starting this week. Perhaps, I can’t bear to think about the alternative. It is time to flip the page and get in to Road Warrior mode and get a MUST win at Indiana and get bowl eligible. Watching Wisconsin edge Iowa and knowing we were THIS close to the upset, makes it even tougher as I realize we’d be talking about a potential Big Ten title chase. All, if we simply stopped that wounded duck of a pass on the fake punt. Yikes.