Wedding Crasher

Before we jump in today, I’d like to give a special shout out to Jeff Budzien, the B1G’s Kicker of the Year for the seconsd straight season.  The Wildcat senior is also a first team all Big Ten selection.  ‘Cats DE Tyler Scott was named second team All Big Ten while four others – C Brandon Vitabile, LB Damien Proby, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo and S Ibraheim Campbell were all honorable mention.

This past weekend my commentary was likely conspicuously missing.  For the first time that I can remember, I wasn’t able to actually watch a Northwestern Wildcats’ football game. I was in the Boston area for a cousin’s wedding which overlapped almost entirely with the ‘Cats-Illini game.  Many of you have experienced this fan-obsessed condition.  You become THAT person, partially disengaging from conversations, cocktail hour and even sneaking a peak at the ESPN Gamecast on your phone with your hands controlling the game’s fate under the dinner table.

I had told a few friends that I’d be relying on them for the commentary.  The ESPN mobile app provides the play-by-play, but I wanted color analysis. Boy, did I get it. It wasn’t until Sunday night that I was able to watch the game highlights, provided by the man himself – NUHighlights (which you can view here).

It’s a pretty amazing experiment to do this. As those of you know who have been in a similar situation, you become very familiar with the refresh icon on your phone.  Those few seconds as the phone goes in to update mode are filled with the power of positive thinking.  I tried to will the score and the plays with each passing refresh.  Yet, as the ‘Cats raced out to a quick lead, relinquished it, regained it and then tried to play not to lose yet again, the commentary in my text box read like the roller coaster that was this season.  Actually, a never ending freefall ride might be a more apt description.

I could tell by the ESPN Gamecast that Christian Jones was having a monster day. I couldn’t tell his two TD grabs were as sick as they were until the text message “CJones ridiculous 1-hand TD grab, might be NU catch of year” came across. It was kinda fun, yet also kinda sick. You can imagine my wife was actually pretty good with things as I’d go 10 minute stretches without being able to watch.

I could tell that we were going pass happy early and that Trevor was having a solid day.  We had 47 plays in the first half and Trevor had a better stat line by halftime than he had in most games this year. I couldn’t tell, even by the texts, how good his throws were.  I was stunned Sunday night watching the replays at both the zip on the ball and the accuracy. It looked like Syracuse all over again and I instantly thought “how many 2014 opponents wear orange?” I was so happy for the senior-to-be.

However, I knew this one was coming down to the wire as soon as the Illini starting marching after stalling on the first two drives. Even on ESPN Gamecast, it is obvious when you start to get gashed.  “Our DL looks awful” texts confirmed what I was thinking. It was then followed by “Our running game has nothing going.” Before I knew it, we were down again and you could just sense, yes, through a phone, that this was going to be a 2005-ish type game. Lots of offense, little defense. I don’t need to recap the game that you already have read about to death, but as the 17-17 game was coming down to the end of the half and we were once again inside the 10, I thought we might be able to escape our Achilles heel, or is it Siemian’s heel (?), yet, the text beat the Gamecast “horrible fake FG attempt fails. Bad.” Instantly I thought “Damn it, Fitz. That one was to show the media and fans that you do have tricks up your sleeve.” As I stood by myself in the corner of the bar,  I had an entire monologue inside my head about this call. I wanted Fitz to know that we as fans meant we want him to go for it on 4th down. Line up, man up and take what’s yours. Especially down by the goal line. However, perhaps the single most similar series of texts I got was on Tony Jones’ 22-yard punt return.  The sarcasm button went on and it started raining “OMG, we fielded a punt…AND made forward progress!!!!”

I had predicted an Illini 3-point win in this one, much to my own chagrin. When Josh Ferguson ripped off a 55-yard rush to start the second half, I was convinced for a moment that this one was about to slip away.  Yet, the most positive flood of texts and emails came after NU went 98 yards with authority to regain the lead on the TD pass to Trevor Siemian. Even jaded ‘Cats fans were giving props in the way we used to – with conviction. “Man, that was as impressive as we’ve been. Complete domination on drive, nice Rashad TD to punctuate drive.”

The ensuing drive resulted in Tyler Scott’s interception. And, if you think being in stadium for instant replay is tough, try milking it out at the buffet line.  Thankfully, my color commentators were giving me the update on the various angles. “Scott pick questionable, Illini fans livid, but looks like it will stick.” As NU marched down and capped off Christian Jones’ career day with another sick diving TD, the flurry came: “CJones sick TD on monster day” and “CJones TD. Wow. Speechless.” The ‘Cats were up 10, 37-27 with over 8 minutes to go and then I did something almost inconceivable. I turned off my phone. I figured I knew what was about to happen. NU would go 3-man rush, give up a score, go 3-and-out, give the ball back and it would come down to stopping the Illini, a really rather poor team, from embarassing us even further. I waited about 20 minutes, couldn’t take it anymore and turned it back on.  While the  score popped up “NW 37 Illini 34”, you really would’ve thought we’d already lost. About 40 texts popped up and I read every one of them in order.  “‘Cats go conservative, give up easy score.” “Can’t take the run up the gut with 8, no 9 men in the box. Enough.” I had every variation and thought bubble that you likely had during that stretch coming in and then I did something I never thought, EVER thought I would do.

I asked myself if we’d be better if we lost. If the very same drumbeat that had contributed to loss after loss happened again, Fitz & Co. would HAVE to reevaluate the way they play with a lead, right? Could I really be thinking this way? Was I deranged by the wedding cake? Had I had too many drinks? I admit, I actually thought about this.  At that moment,  on the sixth consecutive run play and clinging to a 3-point lead Treyvon Green slithered his way for an 11-yard gain on 3rd and 6 to ice the game.  The texts and emails flooded in and a sea of  texts similar to this one: “We win by three and while it’s great to get a “W”, that one sure didn’t feel that good.” filled up my phone.  It didn’t matter in person, on TV or now on my phone, the script barely changed.  NU went in to a shell late in a game and played not to lose. Again. Fortunately, this time we didn’t.

Seconds later a scream came from the bar as Auburn’s ridiculous finish unfolded. I thought back to their improbable win over Georgia a week ago and I thought, “did they steal our mojo at the Outback?” Those are the ways we used to find ways to win big games.  Now, here I was trying to feign momentum for 2014 after a 3-point win over Illinois.

I was thrilled for Jeff Budzien, Christian Jones and perhaps most of all, the much maligned Trevor Siemian.  And then, I started. Well, sure, we lose Tyler Scott and Damien Proby, but…..

  • PurpleHayes

    Wow. My favorite NU sports photo of all time depicted Lee Gissendaner in the Illinois end zone, making a finger-tip catch for the winning TD to complete a 3-TD NU rally in a game known for a while as “The Comeback” (before the meaningless nature of the victory nudged that win into oblivion). 1992, maybe? I had a copy of that photo at one time, but haven’t seen in years. Although the Gissendaner photo would still win out (it was a last-second winner, and showed the scoreboard in the photo with the Cats trailing and :02 left), this photo is eerily similar! Christian Jones is in the same spot and virtually the same pose. Anybody else remember that game, that photo, or better yet, have a copy to post for us to compare? (Good to see “Giss”, NU’s last Silver Football winner, I believe, at Ryan Field a couple of weeks ago, BTW.)

    • LF Cat

      Don’t know if this is the exact picture you are referring to, but I have the 1993 souvenir game program that featured the Gissendaner catch. Players are going in same direction, though Jones is more horizontal; Gissendaner is reaching up. Appears to be the opposite end zone from the picture. Clock says 0:15.

      • PurpleHayes

        I found it on line–yes, that’s it, thanks LFC. OK so the 0:02 in my mind was actually 0:15 (twenty years can play tricks on one’s memory, usually to amplify the drama), but otherwise you have to admit pretty darn close. True Lee is reaching up, Christian out, and yes opposite end of the stadium, but I dare anybody to find another pair of photos showing the score that produced the winning margin against a common opponent that are even close to that similar.

  • SteveR

    LTP…great post that accurately reflects the roller coaster of emotions I experienced on Saturday. Those of us who claim not to have shared at least a fleeting thought the same as yours late in the game (i.e., would it be better if we lose?) are probably kidding ourselves. It occurred to me immediately that if we somehow survived another “trying not to lose” effort, Fitz would regard it as validation for the go into a shell philosophy that has been so unsuccessful over the past two years.

    • PDXCat

      He did seem awfully smug when he was telling the sideline reporter “we’ll be back”. He went on “we got and deserved criticism for where we are, and we need to work on that to improve”. Another Fitz Hot Air Serenade. All season: we need to coach them up better, we need to execute, we need to work on that, that’s on us as coaches. Yet nothing changed. He always talks the talk, yet, so far, 8 years in, he hasn’t walked the walk.

      • GTom

        I sincerely doubt that anything Fitz said at that moment other than “I resign” would have been to your satisfaction. I thought it struck the right tone – acknowledged disappointment, but expressed hope for the future. BTW, those eight years are among the best in program history – I doubt that is the case if Fitz didn’t know how to make a few adjustments over the years.

      • Chasmo

        “Hasn’t walked the walk”? Are you out of your mind?
        Do you have any appreciation at all of how difficult a job NU is and how much success Fitz has had compared to any coach in the post-war era? Ara, who had an easier time at NU because he was there before the arms race had began and every Big Ten program had modest facilities, could only manage to win one more game than he lost during his time in Evanston.
        No coach with a winning record at a major conference program would take the NU job if Fitz left. NONE. NU would be faced with hiring another Randy Walker type and probably get Randy Walker type results.
        My goodness. This has been a disappointing season but for most of NU’s post-war football history, 5-7 would be considered a pretty good year.
        Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

        • Andrew

          5-7 would be considered a good year in the 1900’s yes. This is the 2000s however.

  • PBRCat

    Excellent post! I think everyone who watched or listened shared the same thoughts and emotions. The Wildcats put on their best offensive showing of the season against a weak opponent, but the lame rush three approach almost cost NU the game in the final quarter.

  • Jeffrey Eisenband

    Watched the fourth quarter on my phone too. I imagine this was the most cell phone-watched game in Northwestern history.

  • hoverlow

    What needs to be taken away from this game most of all is – IT WAS AGAINST ILLINOIS! Before this season, hell before the ohio st game we all thought this game would be a blow out. Illinois had a bad team again this year and we BARELY won by 3. Our team has been a mess this year and the reason lies completely on the coaching staff. If there are not changes stand by for another horrendous season.

    • Johnathan Wood

      not COMPLETELY on the coaching staff–severe injuries played a role too. But the coaching certainly didn’t help.

      • hoverlow

        I disagree. Injuries happen to every team. Good coaching overcomes them. Most of the game loses could have been mitigated with solid coaching from camp on out.

        • Johnathan Wood

          with better coaching and a little luck, this team still could have been 8-4 very easily. Like I said, coaching definitely played a role in the disappointment that was this year.

          But there is no denying that injury luck plays a significant role in a football season, and NU caught the short end of the straw this year in that regard (after being highly fortunate in that regard in 2012).

          To say NU would have finished just as poorly if Mark had played all 12 games (instead of 3) and Colter all 12 (instead of 7), not to mention the other RB injuries and the guys who went down on defense, is just foolish.

          • NUinNY

            I’d go a step further, with better coaching alone the team might be 9-3. No reason Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Michigan even should have come down to the end-game like they did other than the coaching. You even have to wonder how OSU would have gone if we’d varied our offensive game plan in the second half when OSU shut-down plan A…

  • Johnathan Wood

    I think it’s a shame that Ibrahim Campbell wasn’t at least B1G 2nd team. He had an outstanding season.

    • gocatsgo2003

      Didn’t make enough plays in conference to merit the award.

  • cardiac cat fan

    Auburn didn’t steal NU’s mojo since the outback bowl, after suffering through Chizik they now have a head coach/offensive coordinator in Gus Malzhan that is one of the most progressive offensive minds in college football today. Take notes McCall and Fitz. Happy to see our seniors get sent off with a W and a hat. Go Cats!

    • cmlukey

      If suffering means having to live through a 3-9 season two years after a NC, I will take it. Get your point though.

  • CatAlum06

    In the OSU-Mich game, Brady Hoke asked his guys if they wanted to go for 2 and win the game. To the man, they all said yes and with nothing to lose, he listened to them and went for it. All the commentators agreed with the call to go for it. Reading that, I couldn’t help but feel for all the times it felt like the Northwestern coaches did the exact opposite. Maybe Michigan fans are heart broken, but somehow I think its better than just that empty feeling all us Northwestern fans have.

    • PBRCat

      Good point. I remember several years ago when Joe Novak was still coaching Northern Illinois when the Huskies went for the 2 point conversion and lost the game to the Wildcats as the pass fell to the ground in the end zone. Afterwards, he stated that he had to play for the win rather than overtime because the Huskies were fatigued and could not match up well with the Cats in OT.
      I do not question Michigan’s call. I wish that our coaches had similar intestinal fortitude sometimes.

      • PurpleHayes

        Don’t question the fortitude at all; I commend it. But the play call was questionable at best. I believe average conversion rate for 2PC is about one-third, so if Hoke thought their chances were that or less, good idea. But to limit a scrambling QB like Gardner to a designed-pass-only play, and then to bunch receivers the way they did (it looked more like throwing into a cocktail party than a pass pattern!), how did Michigan expect success? A coach should think he’s got that one play that maybe cheats the one-third probability just a bit, but I believe the play Michigan ran was a 10% chance at best. Good idea, undone by a terrible play call. (Sound familiar?!)

        • PBRCat

          I still remember the finish of the Outback Bowl when the Wildcats were able to pull off a trick play to win in overtime. As I recall it, the Wildcats were in field goal formation, but the players really failed to sell it well before the snap and the Auburn defense stopped Markhausen (?) about a yard or so short of the goal line.

  • GTom

    LTP, I’ve come to the point where I simply won’t even consider accepting an invitation to a Saturday Fall wedding. It’s the only reason why I’ve missed two home games in 20 years, and I’m not missing another. Anybody who knows me well enough to matter will understand.

    I understand the disappointment on this site as it relates to how the season has unfolded and I truly appreciate the work that you and PRR and others do to entertain us for modest donations that don’t even cover your expenses. That said, it crushes me to see the writers and other die-hard ‘Cats fans in the comments openly discussing the preference of a loss for some leverage to make changes. The negativity that now permeates this site is way over-the-top and disrespectful to players and a staff who give their heart and soul to play a game for our entertainment.

    We won on Saturday, in a record-setting performance for a much-maligned QB, and if I were only reading this site I would have concluded that we lost. Look at someplace like Sipping on Purple – people there are just as disappointed as people here, yet they actually take a moment to celebrate little victories and have a little fun in the process; and aren’t we fans of Northwestern Football for the purpose of having a little fun? Did those Michigan fans (many of whom also expected to play for a B1G championship) who walked away from the game after playing terribly, horrible coaching, and getting BS calls to preserve a victory spend their week lamenting an undeserved win? Are we so good as a program that we can’t suffer a few setbacks and still find a little joy in a tight victory over a rival?

    Sure, it’s OK to criticize coaches, players, administrators, and aspects of the game that did not go well, but I challenge everyone here to just think about your own attitude that you’re projecting on to this team. If you are truly to the point that you hope we “lose so we can make some changes”, I would kindly encourage you to just step momentarily away from Northwestern Football, because nothing constructive will come from that approach. It’s just an insult to the young men who we claim to support.

    • Andrew

      Wow…you know people who actually have weddings in the fall? Those are the worst people to know. I mean cmon….their just being selfish and stupid. What is worse is they invite someone like you who refuses to go because of a football game…You’re a shitty excuse for a human being.

      • GTom

        A little deserved, but thank you for expressing things in such a civil tone. Merry Christmas to you too.

      • LTP

        @Andrew – really? That last line is over the top. Let’s please keep it civil.

    • NJCat

      GTom, This is a NU blog. The only people on this site and particularly, those taking the time to write a post, care passionately about the Cats. They hurt from the repeated losses and failure to become Bowl Eligible. They have every right to vent and to complain at the poor performance of the team and staff. I highlight that but for a few players. (Probably 3 who I will not call out), the authors of the posts have directed their criticism at the coaching staff and not the players. I seriously doubt any of the players read these posts. If they do, it’s their own problem. Buyer beware. What do they expect after all they hype and the horrible way the team performed or should I say failed to perform? If you don’t like the negativity, stop reading. Lastly, there is a HUGE difference between Michigan’s escape W at Evanston and ours in Champagne and the respective responses to same. I dare say that had the W against UoI secured a Bowl game, no one would have felt they would rather have lost to obtain change. Fans, myself included (see my post from after the game) rightfully concluded that Fitz’ overly conservative game management against UoI proved he didn’t learn his lessons from his numerous prior failures. Fans expect their very well paid coaches to appreciate mistakes and stop repeating them!

      • GTom

        Believe me, I don’t question the passion or fandom of anyone on this site, and especially not LTP. I understand that people are only as upset as they are because they do care, and while I disagree with some of the complaints made in the comments, I wouldn’t deny anybody an opportunity to vent. It just feels like things have gone too far, and with this being one of the oldest and more important voices of the ‘Cats on the internet, I just wanted to voice a challenge to what I see as over-the-top negativity, even if my views are not the views held by most who are coming to this site. I’ve said my peace in this thread and PRR’s story following the game and I know that many will disagree with me, but I’m still glad I said it.

    • PBRCat

      It is real enough. I sat through the Michigan game with a NU ticketholder who was a native Nebraskan. He told me that he was disappointed by the “Hail Mary” play because he wanted to see the Cornhuskers coach canned.
      To be clear, I am disappointed in our coaches, but I am not suggesting that Fitzgerald be canned.
      Personally, I have been waiting twenty years for NU to take the next step forward. I have invested time and money into following this team.

    • LTP

      @GTom – Thanks for the really great comment. I appreciate the reminder of the balance of needing to enjoy the win. I was just being completely transparent in my thought process during the post. Of course I wanted us to win, but that fleeting thought was real and scary.
      Thanks for taking the time to write this. It struck a chord with me.

  • MB1982

    One quick thought on the “would we be better off losing?” question. I think a 5-7 record for a team that was hoping to be playing in Indy this Saturday should be enough of a wake-up call. I’m glad we’re not going into next season with an 8-game losing streak hanging over our head.