EDITOR NOTE: The full Sailgate recap and some in person LTP observations will be good to go after I land back in Chitown after a way too early flight. Thanks to everyone who joined us for the incredible day. We did our part as fans, anyway – an Army official at the ticket office told me they estimated the NU contingent right about at 10,000.
Pat Fitzgerald said time of possession would be important. He warned us all that if Northwestern could not keep its offense on the field and keep Army’s offense off the field, things could go wrong in West Point.
The Wildcats and Black Knights are almost polar opposites when it comes to offensive philosophies. NU wants to get off as many plays as possible as quickly as possible, tiring out defenses with its speed. Army wants to run as few plays as possible and strain its opponents minds and muscle with the triple option and a cloud of dirt.
Army easily won time of possession. Working the clock down following a masterful 3-play, 80-yard drive from Trevor Siemian, playing in relief of Kain Colter (get the pun?). Trent Steelman worked his offense methodically down the field, leaving Northwestern players seemingly gasping for air and cramping up.
Steelman ran the ball in for his third touchdown of the game with two minutes and fifty seconds remaining to give the Knights a 21-14 lead that would become the final score. It came after a nine-play, 75-yard drive that took three minutes off the clock. It was one of the shorter drives of the game for Army, but the big plays that came on that game-winning drive were because of the work the Knights did throughout the game.
The Knights held the ball for an amazing 40 minutes and 19 seconds. Northwestern certainly fought Army for each yard, sometimes winning the battle on the line sometimes losing. But in the end, the quick attack offense for Northwestern may have been the team’s undoing today. The Wildcats defense just did not seem to have enough in them to finish this game out.
The offensive execution was not there for most of the day and it was evident in Pat Fitzgerald’s eventual decision to pull Kain Colter with the game on the line. Colter was 12 for 23 for 89 yards, but seemingly fell in love with the long ball after completing his first touchdown pass of the year, a 14-yard strike to Jeremy Ebert in the back of the end zone in the second quarter.
The incompletions began to mount in the third quarter and Northwestern’s offense completely stalled. It allowed Army to grind the game out and thin the Wildcats’ margin for error. With a Knights team that held the ball for more than two-thirds of the game, the Cats needed to score on just about every drive they had.
That was asking too much for Colter today. He was more patient in the pocket, but was not on target with his throws or was making the wrong reads. NU’s offense is built on rhythm, pace and timing. When incompletions mount and the team gets behind the chains, it becomes very ineffective. Colter is still learning how to recover from hiccups in the offense. That comes with experience. And that experience was needed in this game to control the ball and keep Army’s difficult offense off the field.
This team needs the experience Dan Persa can provide. And the bye week is pretty welcome right now for NU to get Persa, who was active and able to play in an emergency Saturday, back into game shape and to have the defense work to correct some of the mistakes in this game that will carry over into the Illinois game in two weeks.
Jeremy Ebert: We have been putting an APB on Ebert all season. Colter and Ebert just have not had great chemistry together and the two have not been able to hook up like Persa and Ebert seemed to. That might be because Ebert was great at anticipating where Persa would go to stretch the plays and would find a way to get open. Colter has opted to tuck the ball and run.
NU seemed to be trying to force the ball to Ebert a little more this time around. Ebert got a few looks on some bubble screens to varying success early. But Ebert really got going after Colter’s bullet of a pass to Ebert streaking toward the back of the end zone for NU’s first score. From there, it seemed like the old Ebert was back.
He finished with six receptions for 108 yards. That included catching a nice underneath rout from Trevor Siemian that he took 62 yards to the house to tie the game. That score might have come too quick for a defense that desperately needed a break from the disciplined blocking of Army. But you cannot complain too much when your offense puts points on the board, especially considering how much it struggled to find a rhythm all game.
Trevor Siemian: So, when we talk rhythm, we definitely talk about getting quick underneath passes and staying ahead of the chains. That was something Kain Colter simply was not doing today.
So in stepped the redshirt freshman from (my hometown) Windermere, Florida with his team down seven points and the weight of the game on his shoulders. He quickly hit Drake Dunsmore for an eight-yard gain. Then found Rashad Lawrence for 10. All on the kind of underneath routs we have come to expect from Northwestern. He kept the offense moving, something Colter was not doing.
Siemian completed five for seven passes for 105 yards. That was exactly what Northwestern needed him to do. He was efficient and quick. It may have been asking a lot for him to lead a two-minute drill with the game on the line down seven points. He got Northwestern to the Army 33 yard line before his fourth-and-one pass fell incomplete at Jeremy Ebert’s feet.
That was your ball game, but Siemian was a pleasant surprise. And he may have reopened the quarterback competition in the spring. At least, keep that in the back of your head when that approaches.
Bryce McNaul: McNaul had a great return to West Point. He fought off a variety of injuries to lead Northwestern with 15 tackles. It seemed like he was in on just about every play too. NU’s defense was all over the place throughout the day. We will get to them in just a moment. But McNaul was certainly the bright spot. He developed into the team’s leader today if he was not it already. It will be on him to lead NU back after this loss.
Defense: Northwestern had its moments defensively in this game. It was really tough to tell whether the problems defensively were because of the the triple option offense Army ran, depth problems — Jack DiNardo was among the defensive players from the front seven that was out today — or if there were systemic problems.
Steelman did not do a whole ton of throwing so those questions about the secondary will have to wait a little while longer. The defensive line did not give up very many “big plays” until the end when the team was clearly tired from being on the field for so long.
Still, the defense looked like it had issues taking on the triple option and keeping Army behind the chains. Thus, Army had the ball for 40 minutes in this one. Northwestern did a decent job covering the first option, but the Knights opened up holes on the outside and Steelman always seemed to make the right decision on that second and third option. One player was there to force Steelman to keep the ball and go inside, but no one was there to stop Steelman.
By the end of the game, you could see everyone gasping for breath and starting to miss tackles. Those are problems the Wildcats need to correct. And they are not necessarily things that are solely on the defense. Moving forward, there is a lot to learn from this game.
Kain Colter: Colter had his moments where he looked every bit as brilliant as he has the last few weeks. He engineered the first drive deep into Army territory before NU had to punt. Then to end the first half, he set Northwestern up for a field goal. When he could get Northwestern moving consistently, he was good.
But this was the exception not the rule this week for Colter. He was not as brilliant and consistent as he has been this season. This will be a day for Colter to forget. He missed on a lot of throws and did not put his receivers in position to pick up yards or get first downs. He was definitely not on his game today — he had 10 rushes for 57 yards to go with two sacks and his 12-for-23, 89-yard passing performance.
Kicking and Punting: We may have had a flashback on special teams today. Jeff Budzien pushed a 26-yard field goal wide left to end the first half that would have been a major lift for Northwestern’s offense. Budzien will have to shake this miss off moving forward. Kicking can be important.
Brandon Williams had an OK day punting too. He had seven punts (a problem in itself) and was not very consistent with his kicks. He averaged 38.4 yards per punt and had a long of 68 yards. It was a decent day for Williams, so I don’t want to make it sound like it was a totally lost day for him. But NU needed more to switch field position and give the defense some room for error.
The Downright Ugly
Time Of Possession: Giving up 40 minutes in time of possession is simply unacceptable. Even if it is against a team that likes to hold onto the ball and take every second off the clock. Northwestern’s offense could not stay on the field and it lowered the margin for error.
The Wildcats had the ball in the fourth quarter for just two and a half minutes. That was enough for the three-play touchdown drive and the final 2:50 of the game as NU tried to make one final comeback. To say the least, NU needed to get Army off the field and possess the ball a bit more.
In this sense, maybe NU’s speed-it-up game hurt it this time around. It gave Army the ball faster and allowed Army to run the ball and take up time off the clock. The Wildcats, with Colter still feeling some growing pains and struggling to find his rhythm, needed to have the ball more.
The time of possession problems fall on everyone.
Final Thoughts: I had a bad feeling about this game because Army is such a strange team to play. Their schemes are very different than anything Northwestern is going to see all year. So how much of the struggles in this game do you want to leave to the opponent and how much to the Cats? That is a question Northwestern will have to answer in the coming weeks.
I am going to spin it positively. I think a lot of the problems today were the opponent. It felt like the Wildcats were overthinking their coverages on the option and not reacting like they should have. Without the threat of that option, NU’s defense should be able to settle in.
I am more worried about the offense. This was the first game NU faced real adversity on offense and Colter struggled to get the Cats back on track. That was the struggle for him and something he will grow into as a young quarterback.
On to the next, I guess…
Photos via DayLife.com.