Encore, Wisconsin

How would Northwestern respond to a week of pats on the back, a defensive revival and, most importantly a win?

Pat Fitzgerald kept the team level-headed and kept up the kick in the pants that followed the sluggish 1-2 start. Still, it was tough to see this team completing this 180 degree reversal again. Unless the first three games were the reversal and the Penn State game was the true Northwestern.

This is getting into some crazy geometry that I am not willing to get into right now (sorry, I was a journalism major, I skipped out on the math classes at NU).

What we do know is that Northwestern could put in that performance again. Relying on another young player to step in with big plays and another overall solid defensive performance. The Wildcats took the lead and did not let go. They controlled field position and kept Melvin Gordon in relative check — don’t let the gaudy yards gained confuse you . . . the Wildcats made the Badgers completely one dimensional.

Northwestern won the game where it mattered, intercepting Wisconsin four times including twice in the end zone. The offense moved the ball and kept field position in its favor. The Cats took advantage when the iron was hot. And, despite some conservative play calling at the end of the game and a two-possession lead, Northwestern went out and took the win. Give NU a 20-14 win over Wisconsin and the team’s first 2-0 start to Big Ten season since 2000 — you know, the last time NU won a conference title.

Pat Fitzgerald found a way to get the best out of his team again in another upset win. Photo by Getty Images

Of course, Pat Fitzgerald is not ready to pat anyone on the back. There were still plenty of things to clean up on both ends of the ball. Melvin Gordon DID rush for 259 yards on 27 carries. Much of that came on three carries — a 58-yard run on his first carry in the first quarter, a 61-yard run in the third quarter which helped set up Wisconsin’s first touchdown and a 31-yard run — as Gordon got to the outside and broke containment. But either Traveon Henry or Nick VanHoose ran him down before he could score. Gordon was largely bottled up.

And he remained the Badgers’ only real option offensively. Wisconsin was truly one dimensional with both Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave struggling to throw the ball consistently.

McEvoy threw a pick in the end zone to Godwin Igwebuike on the opening drive, becoming a theme we will keep coming back to. McEvoy was just 4 for 10 for 24 yards before being pulled in the first half. McEvoy seemed capable of handing the ball of to Gordon enough times for him to get tired and then fail to move the ball with Gordon off the field and in third-and-longs. The Wildcats had that strategy down.

So in came Joel Stave. Stave fared only a little better. He had one pass intercepted by Jimmy Hall when Ifeadi Odenigbo bullrushed his blocker and reached out and affected Stave’s throw. That set up a double reverse to Miles Shuler which gave NU a 17-7 lead, and some much needed breathing room with the Wildcats struggling.

Stave was running for his life on several occasions. He threw another interception in the endzone to Igwebuike as defenders chased him out of the pocket and his throw to a tight end on a crossing pattern fell way short. He had another pick to Igwebuike which sealed the game as Wisconsin had about 30 seconds to go 80 yards as Northwestern finally figured out the right way to eat up clock after a three-and-out gave Wisconsin life and led to a touchdown to give us the final score.

Stave finished 8 for 19 for 114 yards and those three critical interceptions.

Quarterbacks once again found it tough to escape Ifeadi Odenigbo coming off the edge. Photo by Caylor Arnold / USA Today Sports

Once again, Northwestern was creating opportunities on defense and dictating play. The Cats contained Gordon except for those three big runs (none leading to touchdowns) and made the Badgers completely one dimensional. Even with a great back like Gordon, that is an incredible accomplishment. As the game wound down, NU knew it just had to hold on long enough to force Wisconsin to pass the ball.

The Cats did that — although it looked shaky for a while with some very conservative play calling in the fourth quarter. Northwestern went three and out on back-to-back drives to allow Wisconsin within a touchdown and make us all sweat. One final nice drive with Justin Jackson and a big third-and-two play action call with Trevor Siemian connecting with Dan Vitale (the kind of aggressive playcalling so many have been begging for in these situations) took off enough time and put Wisconsin too far behind the chains without the run as an option.

That is where NU wanted Wisconsin all along.

The Wildcats did enough offensively, taking advantage of the good field position and sustaining enough drives to score. Siemian connected with Vitale for a five-yard pass to complete a 15-play, 80-yard drive to give NU a 10-0 lead and take complete control of the game. The rest seemed to be managing field position and making sure Wisconsin started as deep as possible.

Justin Jackson had the first of what is hopefully many 100-yard games for the Wildcats. Photo by David Banks/Getty Images North America

Justin Jackson helped most with that, seemingly willing to match Gordon run for run. Maybe not run for run, but Jackson was as good and consistent as Gordon throughout the day. Jackson rushed for 162 yards on 33 carries. Give him a gameball for his first 100-yard rush. Hope that will be the first of many.

This all paced the Wildcats for the majority of the day, keeping them in control and giving the defense some time to rest and regroup for the next bout with Gordon.

So long as the offense did not make turnovers or any critical mistakes and scored some points, they could take advantage of the aggressive way the defense played throughout the day.

For the second straight week, NU was aggressive defensively and dictated the tempo their. The Cats took control of the game this way, forcing the Badgers to play to their weaknesses by controlling and bottling up their strengths. There were mistakes made, but no fatal mistakes. That is the big difference between this defense and the one we saw earlier in the season and even a few years ago.

It just feels weird to be saying this after the first three weeks of the season and where the team was at those low points. Time to let it keep rolling.

  • garyca

    Great effort and a great win. Siemian is playing a bit hurt, and will continue to improve. And our freshmen will continue to improve. Beating Wisconsin, a ranked team, was incredible.
    But for once, I thought we had a few calls by the refs go our way. It was a very close game.

    • NewDeal

      Indeed, and a couple of catches that I think may not have stood up under closer review, but I’m not complaining!

  • mkasa

    Go ‘Cats! What a huge win!!!

  • Richard

    Uh, I would not call allowing Gordon a career best running game “bottling him up”. Yes, none of his 3 huge runs resulted in TDs, but that’s because
    1. We won the field position battle (thanks to all 3 facets of offense, defense, and special teams).
    2. Our red zone defense was terrific as we really dominated Bucky in their passing game.

    For 2 games now, we’ve faced teams that do not go hurry-up and with a big weak spot (PSU’s O-Line and Bucky’s QB’s) which our (stellar) D has taken advantage of.

    So long as our offense is at least mediocre, we should win games (especially in the really weak B10 West, where every team is big flaws).

    • maryland cat

      Other than the three big runs…the equivalent to three long passes by other teams….Gordon barely got 100 yards on about 25 carries. They stopped him quite well IMHO.

      • James Klock

        Agreed– Gordon was stuffed for less than 2 yards many, many times. That’s what put Wisconsin into 3rd and long over and over again, which is why they only made 4 of 12 3rd down conversions.

  • CliffG

    Has anyone else noticed what Cal is doing? Averaging 50 pts. a game, currently sitting at 4-1. That first week loss stings, but Cal’s record eases the pain a little. Likewise, NIU is doing okay, too. Would like to have a do-over there.

    • NUinNY

      My issue with the first two games was how the coaches called the games, not so much the final result (obviously, at the end of the day, those two things are strongly correlated)…. But agree that those losses are looking less bad as time goes on.

      • nucats96

        Those losses look worse ans worse as time goes on. Our team from the last 2 weeks wins those games by 14-17 points. Cal is 4-1 because Washington St couldn’t make a 19 yard field goal. NIU lost by 38 to a team that is gonna finish 7th in their division.
        But as you said the bigger issue is how we called/played those games which is why the Western Illinois game should also be piled into the looks worse as time goes on category.

        • Richard

          Arkansas may finish last in the SEC West, but they’d likely finish first in the B10 West.

      • Richard

        My take is that Fitz has an old-school mentality where OOC games are almost regarded as pre-season while the conference slate is the championship season. So no trick plays and vanilla playcalls so we don’t show our cards in OOC games.

        Do note that his ultimate goal is to win B10 championships, which require no OOC wins.

    • Jeffrey Schell

      Frankly I think the union distraction required the team to have a few weeks more in prep and focus to collectively mature to the team we have seen for the past two weeks. That was a major, major offseason problem.

      • Chasmo

        Could you explain how something that happened in the spring — Northwestern’s anti-union campaign and the players’ secret vote to unionize — affected the team’s preparations in August and its play in September? And could you provide us with some details as to why that was a “major, major offseason problem”? And, finally, could you tell us exactly how that major problem, which you imply was the reason NU lost to Cal and NIU and played poorly vs. WIU, was resolved just before the PSU game?
        Thanks.

    • royko

      It isn’t just that we lost, it’s that we lost with lethargic, undisciplined play. However Cal and NIU are doing now, those were winnable games and we were outcoached.

      • Pikepole

        Agreed-we were terrible. That was then and this is now. I would also point out that our head coach has been through more crap-starting with Cain last preseason, THE BETRAYAL in January of this year,the union vote,the NLRB,the loss of Christian and Venric,the impending NLRB decision. Just dealing with facts.

        • garyca

          And betrayal by the team leader! This really hurt the team horribly last year. Fitz was asked in an interview in the last couple of weeks if he had taken it somewhat easier on the team late last year and early this year. he paused, said good question,,,,and then kind of didn’t really answer.
          Ironic his name was Cain,,,,,wasn’t there a very early betrayal by a guy called Cain. :)

        • Chasmo

          How did Kain Colter “betray” NU?
          I remember him agreeing to forgo his redshirt year in order to play in three meaningless games (all losses) his frosh year. I remember him playing two positions for NU when his pro career would have been helped by playing one. I remember him leading NU to its only its second bowl victory in history. I remember him playing hurt as a senior. I remember him putting what he learned in the classroom to work by starting a movement that has succeeded in less than a year in getting college football teams to start to guarantee scholarships for four years, to take head injuries more seriously, give kids more food to eat, and, in the coming months, to increase the value of the scholarships NU players will receive. Please explain why doing all that is “betraying” NU?
          In the meantime, how do you like the performance so far this year of Fitz’s off season anti-union spokesperson, Trevor Siemian?

          • Pikepole

            No doubt about it-Cain was great on the field and played like a champ. He more than earned his scholarship and He should be recognized for that. Off the field,he acted like chump-a naive tool who was used by the union. He should have taken his show to the SEC and not NU. Most people who are following big time football realize that the issues which Cain and his union buddies raised were legitimate and should be addressed and corrected. I’m sure they would be welcome at LSU.

    • LTP

      Cal gave up 800 yards of offene and the alltime record 750ish passing yards and won. 60-59. Nuts.

  • nucats96

    My takeaways from this game:

    1) Very proud of the guys on the team for sucking it up and bringing everything they could after such a horrible start. The emotion and intensity have returned and seem to be here to stay.

    2) Pleasantly surprised at the adjustments of the coaching staff. They are far from perfect but showing a willingness to play to win.

    3) Some of the guys we have playing are just a different skill level then we have ever had and it is starting to show. I hope as they continue to develop, they get more PT as the season progresses (I’m thinking Dickerson along with the obvious guys who have already been discussed).

    4) I’m still very concerned about our field goal kicking. I hated not kicking from inside the 20 on 4th and 4 in the first half. I don’t care about the wind. I think our fg kicking is gonna cost us down the road.

    5) If we go to Indy, then to me all is forgiven for the first 3 weeks, until then I am still have a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth wondering what this season could have been. If the first 2 losses cause us to be 7-5 and in some crap bowl vs 9-3 and in Florida, I’ll be bummed. Here is to hoping that in 8 weeks we will all be booking flights to Indy.

    • NUinNY

      No computer rankings are anything close to perfect, but I still find them informative directionally. Reading through this morning, it looks like we’re favored significantly in three, very slight underdogs in two, serious underdogs against Nebraska (honestly, having watched the second half of MSU Nebraska last night, it’s hard for me to disagree), and the computers are going to cover their eyes for Notre Dame.

      In other words, next week is a big, big game.

      • LProf

        Doesn’t the first half of the Nebraska Michigan State game count for anything? Anyway, I agree we will probably lose to Nebraska, but since I couldn’t imagine we could win either of the last two games, nothing the rest of the season will surprise me.

        • NUinNY

          Absolutely, especially for the folks in East Lansing! But the fact remains that I thought Nebraska looked extremely tough based on the part of the game that I saw. And you are right–never know what could happen…

          • JerryW

            I think this NU team could beat MSU, unfortunately we will not play them until the CHAMPIONSHIP GAME!! I think there will be three more nationally ranked teams that will fall by the end of the season. Stay tuned….

          • Chasmo

            Yikes! How bi-polar are NU fans?
            Less than three weeks ago, some fans were calling for Fitz to be fired while others were saying NU’s performance in its first three games of the season marked the beginning of the new Dark Ages for NU football.
            Now we have some fans saying NU will win the Big Ten West by going undefeated for the rest of the season.
            Come on, folks. NU was not as bad as its two losses made it seem and is not as good as its last two victories made it seem.
            I am still hoping for three more victories and bowl bid from a team with a lot of major flaws, the biggest one of which is at quarterback.

        • JerryW

          Nebraska is going down…..

      • Steve

        Massey has us winning against Michigan, Purdue, and Illinois — obviously the stats aren’t totally independent and such, but after last week I believed and after this week it looks very much like we’ll be bowl eligible.

        Screw any other fortune-telling, all I want is to break even on the season and then enjoy each game as it comes.

    • Pikepole

      Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves? Let’s focus on Minny next week and take it a game at a time. Great turn around Fitz and team!!!!

    • Richard

      Actually, considering that even with much more accurate NFL kickers, the higher percentage play is to go for it on 4th down ( http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/upshot/4th-down-when-to-go-for-it-and-why.html?referrer=&_r=0), I don’t think that not having a reliable kicker is really that big of a deal. Especially since our offense is designed to pick up short gains. We’ll just go for it on 4th down much more often.

  • Bob Parkman

    Great recap!

  • JMW Doc

    Meh. Giving up 260 yards and 10 yds per carry average to one guy is not “bottling him up”. Our QB play was mediocre. He missed some wide open guys on crucial 3rd downs. We won because our Defense played well against the pass, and because the Wisconsin OC made some atrocious play calls that cost his team the game, such as passing on 1st and goal from the 3 when you have Melvin Gordon in your backfield.

    • Couldn’t agree more on the bottling up. Was my first thought upon reading that. Gordon had a big game with some monster runs. NU was able to stop the rest of the offense besides him, though, which was huge. And they made just enough stops of him to force Wisky into passing situations that stalled drives.

    • LProf

      You have to give Jackson some credit, don’t you, Debbie Downer? You are right about all of your points (though “bottling up” I think means in this context, “limited the damage on the scoreboard”), but the fact remains: NO WAY IN HELL DID I THINK, THAT THERE WAS ANY WAY WE COULD POSSIBLY WIN THIS GAME. Doesn’t that count for something?

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      I really did not feel his final stats typified how well Northwestern played against Gordon. He got a lot of yards on a lot of carries. There were small gains and losses mixed in there hidden by those big runs. He had some big runs where he broke containment and that was the bulk of those yards (or skewed his YPC). That was my observation. Stats are for losers, right? But the Cats did a great job overall I thought. It was a great gameplan.

  • Smolmania

    Anybody still upset about recruiting misses w malin jones and Ty Isaac? 3 young backs all of whom can contribute – hopefully Solomon is back soon – and a steady vet in trayvon. JJ is a stud – fitting tribute to Adamle during the game but I see even bigger things in store for young mr. Jackson

    And how about dbs making plays on 50/50 balls in the air? Multiple times? Shades of Rodney Ray and Chris Martin! And a nice effort by two different guys running down Gordon on breakouts.

    Really good win – maybe I can save my 8 points on my WI bet till next year?

    • Mark Wheaton

      Ty Isaac was a recruiting miss? WTF. He never was coming to NU. But I agree with you: JJ is the real deal. Good backs just have a knack for finding holes and making people miss. He is a good back.

      • LProf

        It’s nice to see an explosive back in the backfield again. Haven’t had one since Tyrell Sutton. I have nightmares that they are going to put Trumpy out there again (nice kid, but not the guy you want in your backfield).

        • Richard

          Trumpy was a smart runner withR great vision and was quick enough to be effective before he got injured.

  • Just the Facts

    Lots of credit to the coaching staff for getting more aggressive and creative.

    Props to Gradone. I was critical after the Cal game but he has really turned it around and been solid. Great work pinning Wisconsin inside the 10 on multiple occasions.

    I am really excited about the young talent we are starting to see develop.

    The Big Ten (especially the West) is ripe for the taking. If the running game continues to show the improvement it did today, and the passing game gets in sync, this Cats team will be tough to beat.

    A few off-field observations. First, awesome job by the band. Wisky brought their band (actually.a travel side version) and put on a good show. Then NUMB rose to the occasion and surpassed them.

    Second, disappointing crowd although the weather and the 2-2 record didn’t help. If Cats beat Minny to go 3-0 in Big Ten play hopefully we will get a great crowd for the homecoming night game (if the Nebraska fans have left any). Finally there will still numerous problems with down and distance on the scoreboard.

    Really hoping this turnaround continues. This could end up a special season if it does.

    • Bandcat

      Pride and Guts…band motto.Thanks for the salute to the bands which are often overlooked in their part of the College game day experience .

  • PBRCat

    Was Wisconsin’s failure to send out its field goal unit in the second half one of the most bizarre things that you have ever seen? They would up committing a penalty and punting, but it was confusing and strange to watch.
    I am happy for the Wildcat players today. The win was not a work of art or a precise and well crafted victory, but it was fun. It was also a nail biter, but the Cats finally sealed the deal in the final minute. The offense needs to find a way to pad the lead somehow, letting opponents hang around it is not good as we witnessed with the Cornhuskers and Wolverines in recent years.

    • LProf

      I understood the move, given the math at the time. And it pretty much worked: their defense bottled us up and they got it back pretty quickly with a fresh set of downs with great field position (if I am remembering the situation correctly).

  • I think your point about the offense sustaining drives, enabling the defense to rest, is hugely important. Against a back like Gordon, you’re going to give up a few long TDs if you can’t keep your defense off the field. That’s how Wisconsin has typically won in the 2nd half this year. They wear the opposing defense down and eventually reel off some scores. Northwestern didn’t let that happen.

  • Catatonic Joe

    Kudos to the secondary. I can’t remember seeing defenders so consistently run step for step with receivers and then closing to knock the pass down. And NO FLAGS! Well done.

  • Scott

    Cats have a chance to beat PSU, Wisky, Big Blue and Irish in one season for the first time since … wait for it … 1995! And our defense reminds me of that unit for the first time frankly since that great year. Maybe we’ll even get a crack at the University of Spoiled Children (that’s Bay Area speak for USC). I can dream, right …

  • HB

    BTN Final Drive said NU win was even more impressive than last weeks’ Penn State victory. They added that this year may be reverse of last season’s 4-0 start, 15th ranking then complete meltdown. Go Cats!