Consider the term ‘Cardiac Cats a negative. After having the tag of being able to pull out close ones, the ‘Cats now are becoming known as the team that can’t hold on to a big lead. Illinois (5-0,1-0) pulled out a 38-35 improbable win over Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) in a heartbreaking game that saw both QB Dan Persa and starting RB Mike Trumpy leave the game injured. Sorry folks, but this is not just a loss, this a loss that is costly psychologically and physically. The psyche of our program – from the fans to the coaching staff is rattled. With good reason.
We had Dan Persa, the nation’s most efficient passer, and we threw 14 passes with him. Consider this – we rushed 51 times and passed 16 times. Are you serious? The weakness on this team was known by everyone – the pass defense. Persa carved them up – WHEN WE LET HIM THROW. I was on the pulpit all week to let us pass with Persa, but this is beyond ridiculous. Four TDs on 14 passes. I’m all over the place right now so bear with me. What’s even more unacceptable is getting away from what worked so brilliantly on defense.
Northwestern’s gameplan was to try and ease Persa back in to the game by establishing the ground game. The defensive gameplan was to stop the Illini potent ground game and challenge Nathan Scheelhaase to beat them in the air. Mission accomplished on both. AJ Jenkins became Keyshawn Johnson and will forever be in NU lore.
After mounting a 28-10 lead midway through the third quarter on a 4th Persa TD pass, Northwestern was clicking. Despite my yelling at the TV constantly to PASS THE BALL, NU seemed content to be predictable on offense with first and second down run calls all day long. Northwestern fans were uniting in saying “go for the jugular”, but before you could blink, AJ Jenkins was just playing catch with Scheelhaase as the secondary was torched. Well, actually Jeravin Matthews was torched.
The ‘Cats stuffed the run all day long, but Scheelhaase obliterated his personal bests with 391 yds passing on 21/32 passing and overcame 3 Illinois TOs including a pick in the endzone. Mr. Hankwitz, I’ve got some issues here. The “D” has not looked this good in the half since Iowa. Heck, we were better. We had four men rushing, LBs blitzing and Scheelhaase was rattled. We had an incredible 4 sacks and 6 TFLs plus two turnovers caused by penetration. So, what do we do? Stop. Go to the 3-man rush once we get a lead. Enter the AJ Jenkins story.
The story of the day was AJ Jenkins who put up a ridiculous 12 rec, 268 yard, 3 TD day and didn’t even make many spectacular catches – he was too open. Give Scheelhaase and Jenkins credit. They found it working and went back again and again and again. If you’d put our staff on that team awe would’ve started to run more as opposed to passing to Jenkins. I want someone to ask Fitz and Hankwitz why we completely abandoned what was working so well. The second half was a complete retreat on our defensive strategy and I have no clue why.
When NU went up 28-10, you could sense the air tighten. We continued to stay conservative and start running play after play. You could feel the coaches counting the ticks on the clock. The Illini got a spark with a TD to Jenkins when Matthews got torched down the sideline and – BOOM – momentum changed. NU then starting gasping when Dan Persa tweaked his ankle on a scramble and left early in the 4th quarter to never return. Meanwhile, Illinois took the first play of the 4th quarter and hit Jenkins on a wide open bomb to cut it to 28-23 to open the 4th and every ‘Cat fans asked the question whether this was the program from 2010 vs PSU, MSU or will we have the resolve to overcome. We had a five point lead, no Mike Trumpy, no Dan Persa and negative momentum. Sure enough, we started to run regardless of the down and distance and Illinois mounted another Scheelhaase drive wher he had ALL DAY TO THROW since we were consistently playing three down lineman, after an amazing first half where we tallied 4 sacks and 6 TFLs by being aggressive. The Northwestern of past reared its head – get a big lead and try to cling to it. Shocker – it failed to work again.
Kain Colter took the ‘Cats on a sustained drive in to Illinois territory after Donovonn Young had put the Illini up 31-28 with a 1-yard TD plunge. The ‘Cats were flirting with FG territory, but found themselves at 3rd and long and went for a draw to Treyvon Green. It emphasized just how silly we’d gotten on our playcalling when we needed to move the chains to get in to FG territory. The next play, 4th and 8 and Colter scrambled but came up well short. It appeared the game was over.
Jason Ford took the handoff and was shellacked by Brian Peters and the DL and FUMBLE! NU recovered and Colter became the one-man show on offense, running and scampering for yards with Treyvon Green doing his part to mix it up. The ‘Cats picked up 1st and goal after Colter was horse-collared on a fantastic 1st down run along the sidelines. Jacob Schmidt had his monster rush of the year, dragging players on a 7-yard TD with 1:22 to go and you and I know what you were thinking – “uh-oh, too much time!”. The play was reviewed and I was actually rooting for it to be down at the one so we could run down the clock and plunge in to win. Nope, ‘Cats would have to hold up 35-31.
Illinois promptly threw a 30-yard pass to AJ Jenkins. Well, I can’t even go down the recap of the rest of what happened. The Illini moved it at will and NU played its normal 3-man rush and we paid dearly for it. The Illini got another break from NU’s secondary when Scheelhaase floated a pass to (who else) Jenkins, but Matthews pushed him having lost sight of the ball and it was 1st and goal from the 4 with under :30 to go. Scheelhaase punched it in from the one with :13 to go.
Northwestern ran what almost looked like the best play since Stanford-Cal, as a backyard play turned a last second reception in to Jeremy Ebert hitting Kain Colter across the field in stride, but I believe Mulroe couldn’t get his block to spring Colter around the corner and Colter tossed it back to Fields who fumbled it to end the game. Illinois had moved to 5-0 and won back to back Land of Lincoln Trophies. Meanwhile, the ‘Cats slunk to 2-2 and 0-1 in Big Ten play. Notice I haven’t mentioned Persa yet?
That comes now. Dan was rusty, as expected early on, but more from a timing standpoint. NU had two three and outs to open the game where we primarily ran. Persa was his usual self when we let him throw and amazingly threw only 9 times in the first half and had 46 yards, but had thrown two beautiful TDs. In the third, Persa seemed to have more confidence and started to get the greenlight to throw. He was simply brilliant in the 3rd quarter going 5-5 with two more TD passes and had the most incredible series to bring NU to the 28-10 lead. He had a Houdini special 1-yard gain in which he avoided three tackles and then, on a 3rd and long, managed to escape a sack and simply create space to find Jacob Schmidt on what would be a head-shaking first down. Persa would once again connect with his buddy, Jeremy Ebert for the third TD for Ebert on the day and a career best 4th for Persa.
There is so much to review, and we’ll do just that. However, any questions I had about playcalling were exacerbated in this one. It was so painful to watch, because we can rehearse the script at this point. We as a program simply have no killer instinct. I give a ton of credit to the front seven who played marvelously for three quarters today. The secondary got torched, which was primarily on Jeravin Matthews and also on the NU coaching staff for rushing on three men in a Big Ten game and giving that good of a QB that much time. It was really painful to watch.
With the uncertainty surrounding Persa and Trumpy heading in to this week’s game at Michigan, we are reeling right now. Trumpy getting carted off with a leg injury isn’t a good sign. Persa not playing most of the 4th is downright panic time. He appeared to tweak the same ares of his leg where the Achilles injury is and you know if he could play, he would. I have little confidence he’ll be back for Michigan. The bottom line is this is a program from top down that doesn’t know how to close out games. Kudos to our staff and team for having a gameplan that enabled us to get to the point where we are up 28-10, but in the end, if you lose games, it’s a loss. Period. It has gone from preventing us of getting to the next level to a trend to a major red flag and program buzzkill.
We’ll be back in a bit to break down the Great, The Good & The Disappointing. Candidly, I thought Illinois would run all over us. Instead, they passed all over us. There is absolutely zero in the moral victory category – those days are long gone. It’s time to look in the mirror and see what we’re made of.
Congratulations to Nathan Scheelhaase, AJ Jenkins and the Illini. I think the rivarly has been stoked to a new level, don’t you think?
- Northwestern -332 yds total offense, 163 yds passing, 169 yds rushing
- Illinois – 473 yds total offense, 391 passing, 82 rushing (38 attempts, 2.2 ypc)
- Persa – 10/14, 123 yds, 4 TDS, 0 INT, 9 car (-3 yds)
- Scheelhaase – 21/32, 391 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT, 1 rushing TD
- Rushing: Treyvon Green 17 car, 69 yds; Trumpy 12 car, 63 yds
- Receiving: Ebert 5 rec, 68 yds, 3 TDs; Schmidt 3 rec, 40 yds; 2 rec 26 yds, 1 TD
- TOP: NU 30:29, IL 29:31
- Turnovers: NU 0 IL 3
- First Downs:: NU 21 IL 23
- Penalites: NU 4-48, IL 8-70