Venric-less ‘Cats Overcome Injuries, Psyche In 23-20 Win Over Sparty; The Great, The Good & The Disappointing
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Exhausted? I know I am. The nervous energy for ‘Cats fans watching Northwestern (8-3,4-3) hang on to a 4th quarter lead was extreme. The ‘Cats finally reversed a disturbing trend of losing games by giving up late leads and hung on to beat Michigan State 23-20 (5-6,2-5) in another cliffhanger. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that this team was able to beat the best B1G defense on a day when we played a “B” game – we were outrushed, outpassed, had fewer first downs and lost in nearly every stat category except the huge one – turnovers. In years past, we’d need an “A” game to pull out that very same game. When you consider star RB/all-purpose man, Venric Mark, left the game midway through the first quarter due to injury and never returned and Kain Colter got dinged up in the third quarter and sat for the final 15 minutes due to injury, you really start to appreciate how we gutted this one out.
Before we dive in to The Great, The Good & The Disappointing, I want to start with the absolutely absurd. Several of you work at ESPN and I truly invite you to pass this along to the talent director at ESPN. Bob Wischusen and Danny Kannell called one of the most terrible games I can recall. The entire telecast seemed as if local homer announcers slipped in to the booth. I did a double take from the very first words out of Kannell’s mouth when he claimed that no other team in the country has had a roller coaster ride with close losses than Michigan State. Huh? How bout looking no further than the other sideline? The telecast used the “Sparty has lost four B1G games by 10 points” throughout, with only one mention of Northwestern’s “what if?” season. But, that was hardly the egregious part. Michigan State was 5-5 and throughout the game they talked as if it was foregone conclusion that Michigan State would win the game. They never acknowledged NU was two games ahead of Sparty and had a lot to play for (OK, they did once). They gushed about Le’Veon Bell, but failed to setup the fact that this was a head-to-head match-up of the conference’s two best running backs. After two series, Venric didn’t return and they went TWO FULL QUARTERS before acknowledging it. The nation’s #1 ranked punt returner was missing, yet no mention of it. Kain Colter’s primary option in the option game – gone, yet no mention of the impact on the offensive strategy. Then, it became downright annoying. Tyler Scott gets held by a Spartan in the third quarter and gets thrown to the ground by a defender right in front of the ref and near a scrambling QB Andrew Maxwell. Kannell’s comment? He gushed about the “great block” and even mentioned throwing Scott to the ground (who got injured on the play). Uhh, Danny, you can’t grab a guy and throw him to the ground, it’s illegal. Then, in the layup of all layups for setting up drama, Northwestern having to punt and Michigan State getting it back, every ‘Cats fan was thinking about Michigan and how damn similar this all felt, up three, no timeouts etc…and NO MENTION of it. Instead, the announcers talked about the unlikelihood of anything happening. Oh yeah, and thanks for that injury update on Kain Colter when he never came back in to the game. Folks, that was an “F” telecast. But, like everything else after a win, I’ll take it as long as I can keep the “w”.
Let’s get back to the ‘Cats. This was a pretty big game for program momentum. I saw a lot of growth from Fitz in this game in terms of in-game adapting. The game-winning drive which ended in a Jeff Budzien FG was thanks to a series of controlled passes that had Trevor Siemian clicking and one mammoth catch from Dan Vitale in blown coverage. Mark Dantonio had some real questionable play calls that led to a punt on 4th and 10 with under 3 minutes to go. Michigan State had all three timeouts remaining so everyone knew we’d need to get at least one first down to get the win. Throughout Fitz’s career, this scenario would usually lead Mick McCall to go ultraconservative. I was expecting three off-tackle dives from Tyris Jones. Instead, Fitz and McCall went right back to what had worked on the previous drive. Sparty, expecting run, stuffed the box with 8 men. After the initial rush and Sparty timeout, Trevor started aiming for guys in the flat with high percentage passes. It worked. We even picked up a pass interference to extend the drive. Ultimately, we came up short on 3rd and 5 with about 1:20 to go, but Michigan State had used all its timeouts and we came damn close to getting the first. We played to win the game. I texted every friend I could think of and said “win or lose I’m commending NU for the playcalling on this series”. Yet, there we stood, about to punt to Sparty with a minute to go, or about 5 times as much time as last week. Same state, same direction and we all thought it, hopefully not the same result.
The ‘Cats bend but get a takeaway when we need it “D” was back on the field. I couldn’t help but ISO on Jones for obvious reasons. Andrew Maxwell went airborne as expected. An incompletion, a gift no-call on a likely pass interference on Demetrius Dugar and a dropped pass set-up a 4th and 10. This was the play. This was the moment of potential redemption. Maxwell fired a seed to TE Dion Sims who seemingly grabbed it in incredible traffic
Ibraheim Campbell – My game ball goes right here to #24. On a day when the secondary was just getting scorched and tested out of lack of respect, Ibraheim was laying wood and making huge, gamechanging plays. He levelled Le’Veon Bell with a nasty hit early that knocked the bruising back out of the game. A 4th and 1 from the 1 early in the game when everyone in the joint new it was going to Bell, no problem, Campbell knocks Le’Veon for a loss and a turnover on downs. He was in multiple fumble recovery plays, had a pair of key pass breakups and of course, the defensive play of the game, a nasty hit on Andrew Maxwell as he released that forced a flutterball which LB David Nwabuisi promptly plucked out of the air and wound his way for a pick six TD to seize momentum of the game on the second half’s opening drive. A total of 11 tackles on the day – well done Mr. Campbell!
Dan Vitale – What a breakout game for the true freshman. The hybrid TE/FB has been a steady hand all year and each week seems to grow both in confidence and impact, but he was a beast on this day and really found his chemistry with Trevor Siemian taking over the role of Kain Colter as Trevor’s first look in his progressions. With Michigan State having tied things up at 13-13 in the third, Vitale had back-to-back catches from Siemian of 24 yards and 13 yards that set up a Kain Colter to Tim Riley TD. His 41-yard reception on busted coverage, set-up the game-winning points. Simply put, a huge day as he hauled in a game high 9 rec for 110 receiving yards. Great, great game, Dan.
Jeff Budzien – Mr. automatic PAT was perfect as usual on the pair of PATs, but more importantly he drilled all three FGs which turned out to be huge. Jeff was good from 23 yards, 43 yards and the game-winner from 27 yards with a tough angle. Conversely, MSU’s Dan Conroy missed one of his two, which turned out to be the difference.
The Front Seven – Sure, there was some inconsistency in terms of Maxwell getting too much time at times, but boy did this unit step up when it needed to. The ‘Cats talllied 6 TFLs, 3 sacks, several tipped balls and while the conference’s best RB upped his average with 133 yds on 32 carries, he really had only one “big” run – a 17 yarder at that. The Spartans had 156 rushing yards, but really had to fight for them. The intangibles of stiffening near the goal line grabbing a takeaway on a fumble and pitching a goal line stand contributed to our front seven playing loose and even blitzing more often. Sure, a ton of room for improvement, but they really contributed to the win bigtime. Damien Proby led the way with 12 tackles, despite several rests for injuries. Chi Chi, Drew Smith and Nwabuisi all racked up TFLs and Drew in particular stepped up with some serious swarming.
Protecting the Rock - On a day when the ‘Cats D would earn 4 takeaways, NU controlled the ball and had zero turnovers. Our QBs were great in their decision making to not force things and they did a great job of protecting the rock when they found themselves fighting and kicking for every yard.
Offensive Playcalling – The opening drive was just brilliant playcalling by Mick McCall, despite the fact we came away with three points. When you consider the adversity we had thrown at us – Venric’s injury, Kain’s injury – it looks even better. If you combine both Kain and Trevor’s passing, the combo each had 13 completions for a combined 246 passing yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs. It was great to see the staff calling for Kain to play with a much more balanced approach as he seemed to really gain flow with the up-tempo, short passing game mixed in to his repertoire. We continue to add new wrinkles each week and the use of Tim Riley surprised everyone and resulted in a TD. I LOVED our aggressive play at the end of the game and our completely different philosophy of going for the win as opposed to trying not to lose.
Defensive Resiliency – The Michigan State gameplan was pretty simple. A heavy dose early of Le’Veon Bell to get the ‘Cats “D” to respect the run and then play action, play action and play action to throw wherever #22 or #27 were on the field. There is no way to sugercoat it, our secondary has a ton of room for improvement. On this day, it seemed every body blow by Michigan State was immediately followed by a statement. Jared Carpenter gets beat and hurt on a play then turns around and makes a pick. Quinn Evans gets beat and a bad personal foul, then soonafter makes a great breakup. The front seven was a M*A*S*H unit getting dinged up seemingly on every other play, but it seemed every big play by Sparty would be followed by a key play – a TFL, a hurry, and of course the four takeaways. When Michigan State got within our five, we stiffenned. The fact we only turned 4 turnovers in to 5 net points (Kain’s safety came after a fumble recovery). It wasn’t pretty, but it was resilient. Andrew Maxwell ended up 26-42, 297 yds, 2 TD, 2 INTs.
Nwabuisi’s Pick 6 - We gave the due props to Ibraheim up above, but boy was that a sweet return by David to really help Northwestern grab control of momentum and spark the team.
Trevor Siemian – Every commentator raves about it. Siemian’s ability to come in off the bench cold is really impressive. His first few passes were low percentage thread the needle types. Trevor really played with a lot of composure and seemed to pick up where he left off in Ann Arbor, which was his best performance of the season. Trevor was only 13-of-23 for 146 yds and had 0TD, 0 INTs, but the bulk of these plays were split up in to crunch time. Also, the ‘Cats receiving corps continued its case of the drops today as Trevor had at least three gimmes dropped.
NU Punting – I hate to single out specific guys, so let’s just say our punting game has gone south in the past two weeks. Low line drive kicks, lack of distance and some overall head scratching.
Colter’s Safety – The bootleg reminded me of Ricky Stanzi meeting Corey Wootton, Kain Colter’s roll in the end zone resulted in a slightly less sucky outcome. Colter was sacked by William Gholston for a safety and had time to get rid of the rock. It was a huge momentum swing in the wrong direction.
Lack of Trumpy – No disrespect to Tyris Jones, but when it comes to third and short and Venric Mark is out injured, I believe Mike Trumpy has shown over time he’s got the ability to get key yardage. I was stunned at the lack of touches to Mike in this game as he’s been clicking with an outstanding ypc click on the few touches he has been getting.
It’s a great win and Northwestern’s first against Sparty since 2007. It marks only the 7th win (7-18) in East Lansing and we’ve now won three of our last four there (’05, ’07, ’12) and are in a great spot to go 9-3 and then on to that all important bowl win. This really is a double whammy of the good variety. We may have put a team, a program that we believe we’re on the same level with, home for bowl season. Meanwhile, after four straight seasons of declining win totals, we’re on the verge of matching Fitz’s highest regular season total and setting up the program for a potential very rare 10th win. When you consider this was a rebuilding year, it really could set us up for a huge 2013 season when we have nearly every playmaker back and the wind of a lot of wins, yet a taste of disappointment as well.
The ‘Cats mustered a mere 57 net rushing yards and beat a decent B1G team that featured a great defense. The ‘Cats totaled just 303 yards of total offense, were without the services of their two best players for significant parts of the game and won. We were terrible on 3rd down, going just 3-14 and punted 8 times in the game – yet, we won. It was an incredibly resilient performance after the crushing heartbreak last week down the road in Ann Arbor. Let’s give credit where it is due – to the coaching staff and the team. What a battle.
It’s been a crazy night as both #1 and #2 were upset in the BCS and TTFSB is the new #1. The Illini, our opponent and focus for the week continued its hapless ways dropping their 13th straight B1G game and dropped to 0-7 in league play. Meanwhile, that non-conference schedule we didn’t get credit for is starting to look a bunch better. Vanderbilt throttled Tennessee to get to 7-4 in the SEC and Syracuse beat Missouri a week after downing #9 Louisville and helping the perception of our wins as both will be bowl bound. BC let one slip away in OT to Virginia Tech, but what can you say? It was just that kind of crazy. Oh yeah, then there is that little rumor about Maryland and Rutgers joining the B1G. Ugh, boy do I have some strong opinions on that. How will we get it all in this week?
Let’s take a look at some stats to stew on:
- Pat Fitzgerald is now one win away from tying Lynn Pappy Waldorf for most wins (49) in NU History
- The ‘Cats now have a winning road record (3-2) for the fifth straight year
- Sparty’s safety was the first by NU since Illinois got us in 2006
- NU improved to 23-12 in Fitz era games decided by 7 points or less
- Fitz is now 11-8 in games decided by 3 points or less
- Nwabuisi’s Pick Six was NU’s first since Jordan Mabin’s in the TicketCity Bowl on Jan 1. 2011
- Tim Riley now has three career receptions with two of them going for TDs
- Career highs on the day included Rashad Lawrence’s 6 receptions, Drew Smith’s 4 tackles and Quinn Evans’ 7 tackles
- The ‘Cats scored in double digits for the 71st straight game.
FINAL GAME STATS
|NET YARDS RUSHING||57||122|
|Average Per Rush||2.1||3.1|
|Yards Gained Rushing||67||156|
|Yards Lost Rushing||10||34|
|NET YARDS PASSING||246||297|
|Average Per Attempt||5.7||6.3|
|Average Per Completion||9.5||13.5|
|TOTAL OFFENSE YARDS||303||419|
|Total offense plays||70||86|
|Average Gain Per Play||4.3||4.9|
|Average Yards Per Punt||37.5||42.6|
|Net Yards Per Punt||37.1||40.8|
|Average Yards Per Kickoff||59.9||62.2|
|Net Yards Per Kickoff||38.3||41.8|
|Punt returns: Number-Yards-TD||2-9-0||1-3-0|
|Average Per Return||4.5||3.0|
|Kickoff returns: Number-Yds-TD||3-57-0||5-101-0|
|Average Per Return||19.0||20.2|
|Fumble Returns: Number-Yds-TD||0-0-0||0-0-0|
|Third-Down Conversions||3 of 14||8 of 17|
|Fourth-Down Conversions||0 of 0||0 of 2|
|Sacks By: Number-Yards||3-27||1-1|