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…..