First off, in the “breaking” news department, congratulations to NU CB Nick VanHoose, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for his stellar play against Minnesota, including a career high 3 PBUs, two of which were highlight worthy. The ‘Cats seem to dot the B1G POTW honors nearly every single week. Now, back to “The Drive”…
When it comes to hyperbole, I’m usually the signatory. Superlatives pour out on to the blog quicker than you can say “-est”. However, I’ve been scanning the memory banks since the 2011 Nebraska game and Kain Colter’s 4th quarter, game-winning, time sucking, gutsy 13-play, all-rushing TD drive and I believe it to be “the drive” for Northwestern. Our “Drive”. Every team worth its weight has one in their history. In the case of places like Cleveland, they have multiple versions. Northwestern’s lexicon of single phrases that are universally shared “where were you when?” moments is pretty limited. “The Drive” is now taken.
I scanned the memory banks. Notre Dame on 9/2/95. Penn State from that same year. Wisconsin in 1996. Michigan 2000. You get the gist. Major, epic wins and none of them are “the drive”. Instead, we have a couple different compartments. Well, three really. There are 1) epic wins that came down to a last gasp score, 2) a turnover inducing finish or 3)a defensive stop. The last gasp scores and turnover inducing finishes have major overlap. The first category is highlighted by the likes of “Victory Right” (Minnesota 2000), Michigan State 2001 (craziest two minutes in NU history) or even Gissendanner’s incredible catch in 1992 at Illinois (known in NU lore simply as “The Comeback”). Then, there are the FG variations of this, highilighted by Gowins kick is “gooooooood” in 1996.
The second category is chock full. “The Game”, which I refer to the 2000 Michigan game as, was finished in dramatic fashion thanks to Sean Wieber’s hand getting on the A-Train for a fumble. Ron Dayne fumbled in ’96 to enable us to score in the final minute. The amount of late turnovers is pretty amazing as you can add Iowa 1995, Wisconsin 2009 and on and on it goes. The final category of defensive stops ranges from the gold standard – Notre Dame in 1995 to pick a game in 1996.
The only caveat to annointing Nebraska 2011 as “The Drive” is that it usually the game has relevance on a special season. It’s usually part of a bigger picture context – a championship season, a national title level game or the like. However, I’ll lobby that a Big Ten inaugural game with the No. 9 Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln in the middle of a season in which our program was on the verge of imploding (we entered 3-5 having just won at Indiana) and our all-everything QB going out (again) with another injury, it qualifies.
The ‘Cats would use the spring from the Nebraska win to rattle off two more wins and somehow salvage their bowl appearance streak at four, and fifth year of bowl eligibility. When you look at sustaining consistency in a program, getting to a bowl game in 2011 was a must. The 28-25 win was the most complete game a Fitz-era team played. Kain Colter came of age within the game itself and the shot of confidence has led us to go 9-2 including that win at Nebraska, in the regular season. If I had told you that the day before the Nebraska game that we would go 10-2 including that week’s Indiana game, until the next time we faced Nebraska, you would’ve laughed me out of here. Let’s jog the memory bank so you can use the oh-so-pleasant memory of last year’s upset in Lincoln to help you get through the week.
Setting The Stage
After taking a 21-10 lead, the Wildcats saw Taylor Martinez work the Cornhuskers down the field for a touchdown and two-point conversion on a 12-play, 74-yard drive that ate up just 3:22 from the clock. Kain Colter took the field with 8:48 left in the fourth quarter and NU holding onto a 3-point, 21-18 lead. We had seen this story before as Colter began the drive at the NU 34-yard line, or so we thought.
Mick McCall’s first play saw Colter hand-off to walk-on-turned gutsy RB, Jacob Schmidt. Schmidt might be the guy who Fitz & Co. wrung every ounce of talent out of as he proved perseverance can trump talent. We’d seen this play many times in the season with very mixed results. The late-game call on fourth down against Army was one example Schmidt took the ball and tried to break off tackle to no avail. Now, seemingly years away from West Point, the OL began to assert itself like it had yet to do all year. Schmidt had a hole. A big one. He picked up 14 yards to get to just shy of midfield at the 48-yard line.
Pat Fitzgerald has said repeatedly that the definition of insanity is trying something that is not working over and over again. And for a long time a play like the one the ‘Cats ran on the first play of the drive would be part of what Fitz was talking about. Schmidt had been the master of the 3-4 yard pick-up.
The very next play, Schmidt, a Fitz alltime favorite, took the handoff for another 11 yards. In two plays, Northwestern was in Nebraska territory and looking to respond to that threatening score. As PRR said when reviewing this last year, “each play on this drive was like a thesis statement in the game, the ‘Cats were bringing it between the tackles and dominating the Nebraska line.”
The negative fan thinking began to kick in as we were moving swiftly downfield. What if we get downfield quickly and only get three points? Surely, based on the Illinois game and so many others, putting the game in the hands of our “D” to keep an opponent from a last minute TD drive was, well, threatening. . The ‘Cats rarely huddle and rarely eats up more than 30 seconds off the 40-second play clock. In fact, it is when Northwestern slowed its pace down that things seemed to get out of whack in 2011. This would not be the typical drive. Already with two runs down, the Wildcats seemed back to their conservative ways. It seemed only inevitable this drive would stall should we stick with the run, despite the 25 yards already gained.
We underestimated Kain Colter. If there was ever a pure sign of growth it was from Colter on this drive. Remember, Colter struggled at Army when his team needed him to score. Colter was pulled for Trevor Siemian who led the team to the game-tying score. It was easy to be down on Colter in big spots when NU needed balance — someone as confident throwing as he is running.
He had stepped in before halftime when Dan Persa hurt his shoulder and simply was dazzling. His zone option reads made Nebraska’s head spin. It was if Taylor Martinez, a dynamic zone option read guy himself, was an inferior practice squad guy compared to the ‘Cats Colter who was shredding the Nebraska “D”. And, unlike in 2012, he was able to convert some over pursuit of the run in to a nifty big pass play thanks to Jeremy Ebert’s drag route across the middle where he had promptly turned on the afterburners and shutdown any talk of inferior speed. Colter, though, will long be remembered for his option keeper where he dove from the five yard line, switched the ball in midair and somehow scraped the pylon with the ball for one of the more superman like TDs in NU history. But, that was all the past at this point. The ‘Cats were on the verge of the biggest upset in the Fitz era (yes, even though they’d beaten a higher ranked Iowa team in the past) as the contrast in our respective schools’ histories seemed to be a cloud hovering over the fan base. “We are in Lincoln, up on #9 Nebraska, with Kain Colter – this couldn’t possibly happen, could it?” we thought.
Colter called his own number for a 14-yard carry up the middle. In three plays, the Wildcats were at the Nebraska 30-yard line. Things were rolling. Treyvon Green added nine yards on the next two plays before Colter was stuffed on 3rd-and-1 and it was fourth down at the 21-yard line. After six plays, three first downs and more than 3:30 off the clock, NU met its first challenge of the drive. A 38-yard potential FG awaited. The mindset of the fans went back to the “even if we score a FG, I have no faith in this “D” to stop Nebraska from a TD with this much time”.
Fitzgerald is notoriously conservative, yet no one would blame him for taking the points in this situation. A poor fourth down decision has hurt him in the past before. But, again, this drive was a microcosm of the game – the playcalling, the execution, the fire of the line – it was different, very different and Pat Fitzgerald knew it was time to go for make or break on the season. He didn’t just trust his instinct, he obeyed it.
What would we do? Are we going for it? Holy cripes, no FG unit…we are going for it. I reminded myself, regardless of what transpired, I would applaud this decision. It was the right thing to do. You’re 3-5 and have a weak defense. Put it in the best player on the field’s hands. Would we throw? Colter had completed two-thirds of his passes for 646 yards and five touchdowns. Would we run? Colter lead the team in rushing with 516 yards on 99 carries and eight rushing touchdowns. Perhaps, even a trick play? McCall had even put Colter at wide receiver, which seemed to possibly be his most natural position where he had 24 catches for 336 yards to date. Or, would he go to his favorite, Jacob Schmidt, knowing we’d gone there against Army in this situation and it didn’t work out.
Fitz went sweet spot. It was an option to the right with Treyvon Green, but the pitchman was never going to be an option. This game was going to be won or lost on Colter, and everyone knew it. Still, Nebraska could not stop Colter as he cut hard to his right, turned his body ever so slightly to sell the option pitch and then found his lane where he slithered forward past a Nebraska defender and picked up four yards for a first down.
Holy smokes. First down Wildcats! Play number 7 of the drive was hardly lucky, it was a matter of playing the odds and we won. Now it was math time. Check the clock, scan Nebraska timeouts and how much time can we eat up without going ultraconservative. God, I hope we don’t run three plays up the middle!
But, this was nothing like we’d seen before. The ‘Cats OL had come together, magically, and was blowing Nebraska (yes, NEBRASKA) off the ball and creating all kinds of running lanes. Admittedly, the fact that we hadn’t thrown a single pass did not even enter my mind at this point. There were 20 yards seperating us from paydirt, a result that we knew we HAD to have to win and every one of them would become methodical. Nebraska was on its heels and kept off balance by Colter’s ability to run and cut between defenses. . Colter gained five yards, then Green picked up four, then Colter added two more. First down at the five. OH MY GOD.
Nebraska still had its timeouts on hand, so more clock watching, timeout checks and math as I went in to fan paranoia. I’m thinking we are in four down territory all the way. Jacob Schmidt carried the ball up the middle for two yards to the doorstep of the goal line. Then Colter tried his luck for no gain. Damn it! Third down, but wait, Nebraska is completely screwing up the clock management as time is ticking and they’re not calling a timeout. Finally, about :15 in to the play they spend their first and there is still 1:43 left. Third and goal from the 3.
After the timeout, Colter lined up under center. The Nebraska line seemed to grow in size and stature at that moment. No Big Ten team had won in Lincoln since Minnesota in the early 60s. Is there any doubt this is coming down to a fourth and goal? Well, Kain Colter responded with a YES there should be as he wasted no time and leaned on his line, quite literally, before diving in a crease under a heap of a pile. Where are the refs arms, where are his arms? No call yet. No way we get this call in Lincoln…wait, wait..TOUCHDOWN! Northwestern 28 Nebraska 18. We are going to win in Nebraska. I don’t care that Nebraska will come down and score to make it a 3-point game (which they would do). This is the ballgame.
We just ran a 13-play, 66-yard drive that ate up 7:20 off the clock. Every single play was a run. we just gave it to Nebraska in their house by beating them off the line and shoving it down their throats. Welcome to the Big Ten Nebraska, and welcome to the bar for what this team is capable of doing when they bring it. The season turned right then and there. We went from a five game losing streak to now being 4-5 and we’d win our next two to salvage the season. It was the most unlikely win of the Pat Fitzgerald era and showed what a team can do when it plays inspired. It set the bar for offensive line play and great defense (for 58 minutes). It gave me hope that we are indeed still on the right trajectory as a program. It was…unbelievable.
I submit “The Drive” to the lexicon of Northwestern football history. A series that will grow even more epic with the passing of time. I’m also hoping the confidence we built that day, by so many of the same players on offense and defense, will be resurrected on Saturday. You know how much of a believer I am in psychological edges, and Kain Colter has to be buoyed by his play in Lincoln last year. There is a comfort factor in knowing you play so well against a certain team. This Nebraska defense is, well, un-Nebraska-like and struggles mightily with the run. My number one hope is that we can bounce “The Drive” from its very short history in our lexicon and replace it with a new one, this week.
Fire up fans, this is going to be fun.
More ‘Cats Pub…
Be sure to DVR BTNLiveBig tonight at 6:30 pm ct. It’s a compelling show about B1G alums making a difference in the world and tonight’s episode is Michigan-Ohio State focused, but it includes a sitdown interview with host, Dhani Jones and Pat Fitzgerald about the role of making a difference and how much Fitz emphasizes it as part of the program.
Big Apple Party For NU vs Big Red
OK. It’s do-or-die time for this one-of-a-kind watch party – we need about 20 more tickets to make this AN OFFICIAL “GO”! The game is set for 3:30 et so we now know you have no excuse to join fellow Wildcat fans for a foodie watch party.It is brought to you by one of the organizers of Sailgate – Mr. Scott Smith. It’s part custom-made theater, part customized cooking demonstration, full slate of open bar and phenomenal food…all in a part TV Studio/part Kitchen/part party room. Think of it as a Super Bowl party with Wildcat fans where you get top shelf food, open bar and a great game watching experience with zero hassle. Afterall, based on the $200+ current prices for a Nebraska ticket, this could very well be our Super Bowl. Let’s lay out the party details for you:
Date: October 20, 2012 – 3:30 pm et kickoff – see details for when doors open
Location: The Kitchen NYC (Click Here) – 146 E. 44th St., NY, NY – just steps from Grand Central
Event Description: Chef Patrick Connolly, a James Beard Award-Winning chef, and relatively well-known NY-based chef to the foodie crowd, will be on hand to create a feast specifically designed for Wildcat fans in this one-of-a-kind dynamo kitchen that is also part of a production studio. You’ll have all kinds of crazy good eats as well as open bar all afternoon as Scott Smith converts the space in to a one-of-a-kind Wildcat watch party. Plasma screens, all kinds of comfy seating and a room full of fellow Wildcats will turn this place in to a classy version of the Ryan Field east lot.
How Much?: Great question. $135 per head for the event, and there is a limit of 120 total tickets. While there is no Groupon discount, we need 90 people to make it a go.
I’m in! Where do I sign up?: We aim to please. Simply click here and be sure to spread the link around to your friends.
Having worked with Scott last year on Sailgate, this man knows logistics. He’ll be teeing up an awesome event that is tailor-made for you to either come solo, or, convince your significant other to find a very fun way to enjoy you watching your ‘Cats with a room full of crazy ‘Cats fans. And, let’s face it – it should be a stellar networking event as well. As if you couldn’t tell, this thing is in desperate need of a name. Suggestions welcome!
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