Roche’s Reaction – NU 50 – ILL 14

Cue the Staples ‘That Was Easy’ button. 50-14. Northwestern finishes the season 9-3 and 10-1 ATS. It didn’t always look like it was going to be a walk in the park, as the ‘D’ sleepwalked through the first 20 minutes of the game, which resulted in 14 early Illinois points. On to the highlights and lowlights.

Highlights
Kain Colter’s Throwing – Kain Colter is an incredible athlete, and more often than not he makes plays with his legs. Today he showed he can get the job done with his arm. His final passing stats were: 9/11, 102 yards, three touchdowns. Raise your hand if you thought Colter would have a three TD game this year. /crickets/. Exactly. Great growth to see Kain having the confidence to let is fly.

Offensive Line – Well over 300 yards rushing. The ‘Cats were able to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do, except a Bo Cisek touchdown. They controlled the line of scrimmage and smacked around an Illinois team desperate for a conference victory.

Keeping Up With The Jones – Northwestern was thisclose to having all three Jones – Christian (who stepped out two yards short), Tony and Tyrus – score a touchdown today. Tyrus had a 15 yards screen pass TD to go along with 45 yards rushing and some impressive returns, while Tony hauled in a nine-yarder from Colter

The Last 40 Minutes Of Defense – I’m gonna go ahead and pay myself on the back by calling the three INT’s #shamelessplug. The defense was much improved after seemingly washing their hands in crisco before the game (see below in ‘lowlights’). Illinois simply couldn’t get going after the first 14 points. Good defenses can get beat, but they won’t get beat the same way over an over again. Great job adjusting and making That Team Downstate earn every yard they could. Also – Safeties are awesome. Thank you for that, Max Chapman.

Venric Mark – During the game, Lake The Posts tweeted a ‘thank you’ to Venric Mark for being him. For turning a weakness in recent years (rushing) to the strength of this offense. Every Northwestern fan echoes this sentiment (though I think NotSoutheastern’s sentiment might be more PG13). He consistently turns 2/3 yard gains into 6/7 yard gains. He shows patience and explosiveness that we haven’t seen in years. He finished with 18 rushes for 127 yards and 1 TD. Great to see him back on the field after getting hurt last week. The ‘Cats need him healthy.

Jeff Budzien – A Groza award semifinalist, Jeff Budzien knocked in 36 and 44 yard field goals today. His total this year is 17/18, with his only miss being the 53 yarder against NEB. That kick missed by a hair.

4th Down Attempts – Fitz went for it on 4th down. In the red zone. In the 4th. Up 34 points. I know Fitz wanted to play as many seniors as possible (Hello, Bo Cisek), but I also like to think this was a middle finger to Illinois. Probably not, considering that’s very un-Fitz-like. I love the killer instinct.

Not Punting – That’s all. Northwestern didn’t have to punt all game.

Lowlights
The First 20 Minutes Of Defense – They just sleepwalked through Illinois’s first few drives. Couldn’t tackle anything. All of a sudden the ‘Cats are down 7-0 in the middle of the first quarter.

Trevor Siemian – He wasn’t used much, but he seemed a little off he overthrew his receivers pretty terribly right before halftime. He may have been just throwing it away. I don’t know, guys. I’m reaching for negatives in this game.

Moving Foward
Wait and see. The ‘Cats finish 9-3 (5-3). Good for most since 2008, when Northwestern lost to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl. Possible destinations are Orlando for the Capital One Bowl (unlikely, given Michigan being available), Tampa for the Outback Bowl and Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl. My initial impressions have the latter two as equally likely, but we’ll do a post this week detailing the possible bowl destinations and odds.
The win also have Pat Fitzgerald 49 career wins at Northwestern. That ties him for most all-time in Evanston with Lynn ‘Pappy’ Waldorf. It’s a testament to how important Fitz is to this program. Great job, Coach.

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Roche’s Reaction NU 23 – MSU 20

Of course it was going to be close the entire way. Sparty had a nasty habit of losing close games, and the ‘Cats kept giving up late leads – something had to give. The ‘Cats picked up a big road win, giving them a 3-2 road record this year and get the Sparty monkey off their back. (Northwestern looks to get the other monkey off their back on January 1st).

Highlights
The defense – In a game where the offense left their ‘A’ game in Evanston, the defense came up big, bending but not breaking. The stats aren’t pretty (cue the Fitz “stats are for losers” sound byte), as Andrew Maxwell threw for nearly 300 yards. Likewise Le’Veon Bell rattled off 4-8 yard runs seemingly easily. When the defense needed to come up with big stops (4th and goal), it did. Four turnovers (two fumbles, two INTs) at opportune times. The defense isn’t going to over-power many teams this year. It won’t need to if it can get turnovers like this.

Jared Carpenter – With Nick VanHoose out again, we knew Sparty would go to the air early and often. It did. Jared Carpenter made big plays when he needed to, most notably his late interception of Andrew Maxwell.

David Nwabusi’s pick six – I was close! I called for a Dugar pick six. But instead of #22 taking one to the house, we saw #33 bring one in for the score. The offense was having trouble scoring, and the interception early in the second half was a momentum builder for the ‘Cats.

Trevor Siemian – Trevor went 13-23 this week and seemed to pick up where he left off in Ann Arbor. When the option offense stalled, #13 stepped up and hit high percentage pass after pass, effectively moving the ball. Northwestern’s only offensive touchdown was a result of Trevor driving the team down to the goal line before Kain came in for the score.

Dan Vitale – Trevor Siemian found a favorite target yesterday. The freshman superback had over 100 yards receiving, and seemed to come up with every huge completion. Expect to see more throws go his way against Illinois after his huge performance yesterday.

Play Calling – I said it last week: if the option offense is going to be effective, Colter is going to have to pass more often. Ask and you shall receive. The first drive saw Colter complete several high percentage passes in a drive that ended with a Budzein FG. The play calling was also aggressive at the end of the game. Rather than running the ball three times and punting it back to Sparty, the ‘Cats dialed up a pass. Aggressive. Late in the game. Mick McCall, you crazy sumbitch. Your stock is rising, fella.

Lowlights
Punting – Woof. It looked like Williams had the yips this week after his final punt-gone-wrong against Michigan. Low, wobbly punts all game gave MSU better field position than it should have had. I personally think he was in his own head, and don’t see it as a recurring problem. But it was concerning nonetheless.

The Offense – 57 yards rushing for this team usually would spell disaster for this team. The lack of Venric Mark certainly hurt the option offense. That said, not a lot went right overall for the offense after the first drive. Three and outs. A few drops. Not a day for the offense to hang its hat on. But the offense did justenough to win. (Side note: I get a weird sense of satisfaction having the ‘Cats defense bail out the offense. Something you don’t see every day).

Injuries – Venric Mark saw only six rushes before leaving for the rest of the game with an upper body injury. Tyler Scott got slammed to the turf and got hurt. Tyler would eventually return, but I haven’t heard any updates on Ricky Football’s (as Andy calls him) status for next week. I hope the ‘Cats can beat the Illini even without Ricky Football, but he needs to be healthy for the bowl game.

Officiating – Awful on both sides. Tyler Scott getting thrown to the turf (holding plz?). Dugar had a PI on Sparty’s last drive that went uncalled. Phantom PI extended another ‘Cats drive earlier in the game. It was bad. But I think Sparty got the short end of the stick on Saturday.

ESPN2’s Team – They were bad. It took them nearly two quarters to say Ricky Football (I’m trying to make that a thing, Andy) was out. Two quarters to say the most important offensive player wouldn’t return? Come on guys, do your job. Not that it really mattered anyway. We read it on twitter long before they reported it. That said, a matchup of two unranked teams in a down year for the B1G isn’t exactly going to demand Musberger/Herbstreit.

Moving Forward
As bad as the offense was, I think it’s a good sign. In years past, the ‘Cats would have had to bring their offensive ‘A’ game on the road to win like that. They did not (obvi). Instead, they played one of the poorer offensive games this year and still won. I don’t expect them to play as poorly as they did yesterday for the rest of the year, bowl game included. A 10 win season is still a real possibility.

What I want to see next week is for Northwestern to stomp Illinois, Champaign’s Big Ten Team. I know Illinois is bad this year, but I’m scared this matchup has ‘Trap Game’ written all over it. Don’t look past these guys. Don’t get cute. Don’t ease off tje throttle in the 3rd. Roll ’em, Fitz. A win would tie him with Pappy Waldorf for most wins all time at Northwestern (49).

The ‘Cats look like they’re celebrating New Year’s somewhere in Florida (unless you’re Jerry Palm, who is insistent that Northwestern is going to the BWW Bowl). The Gator Bowl seems the likely destination. However, if Wisconsin loses out (PSU, Nebraska), they’ll be limping home with a 7-6 record. The Outback Bowl would come calling a 9-3 NU team over a 7-6 Bucky.

Around CFB
Sports, please don’t ever change. Yesterday was an incredible day of upsets. Down go the Ducks and the (other) purple Wildcats. After the dust settled, it looks like That School From South Bend will be your #1 team in the country tonight [checks calendar to make sure it’s not 1987. Checks again because still in disbelief]. Let that sink in for a minute. I come from a family of Domers (which explains my enmity for the Fighting Irish). So to Grandma, John, Colleen, Jake, Kristin, Aunt Marijo, Uncle Kevin, Uncle Steve and Uncle Walt: I’m happy for you. I know how much football means to you and the rest of the Alumni. Enjoy it while you can, though, because I just can’t see any scenario in which TSFSB wouldn’t get absolutely rolled by ‘Bama. However, if the only thing in the way of another SEC-SEC title game is the Irish, then (sigh), GO IRISH.

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED – Write Entire Post In Flight On Your Phone (+6.25 EXP, +1 Thumb Dexterity, -1 Autocorrect Errors)

Roche’s Reaction – NU @ Michigan

Here is the 2nd installment of our commentary of Saturday’s game. Hopefully these jokers learn how to post to the site by themselves soon!

Roche’s Reaction:

The ‘Cats’ game against Michigan was one of the more heartbreaking losses in recent memory. The stakes were high, with the winner of the game in the driver’s seat for a Capital One Bowl birth. Two days after the fact, the Warriors feel ready to discuss what transpired in Ann Arbor on Saturday afternoon. Associated Press and countless other blogs have already documented a game recap, so let this serve more as a highlight/lowlight post of Northwestern’s 38-31 loss.

Roger, Greg and I (Roche) met up at Roger’s apartment to watch the game, while Andy made the trek to Ann Arbor early (4:30 am!) Saturday morning.

Highlights

  • The #B1GCats avoided getting in to an early hole on the road, stopping the Wolverine’s first possession and answering with a long drive, finished off by a three yard Venric Mark TD. Great, methodical drive. All but 19 of 78 yards on that drive were on the ground, but those 19 were big. After getting stuffed twice (Venric first, then Kain), the ‘Cats faced a 3rd and 12. Colter hit Christian Jones for 19 yards, extending the drive. How great is it to see Kain drop back and float one to a wide open receiver like that?
  • Northwestern’s play calling right before halftime was excellent. With 1:53 left and the ‘Cats down 14-7, I was expecting to see a few runs to burn the clock before halftime. Fitz went aggressive (most likely due to favorable field position near midfield), and sent in Trevor, who led a great drive, ending with a beautiful throw to Cameron Dickerson’s back shoulder for a TD.
  • Trevor Siemian was fantastic all day. The much-maligned receiving corps found open space and #13 hit them all in the hands. His one incomplete pass (6/7, 87 yds, 2 TD) fell through the grip on Tony Jones. The offense showed shades of a Dan Persa-led offense: quick routes, high percentage passes.
  • It goes without saying, but Venric Mark (23/104/1TD) was brilliant again. It’s an incredible identity shift to have a Northwestern back be this dangerous
  • The platoon worked this game, as both QBs were effective. Credit to the coaching staff for balancing #2 and #13 well. They didn’t break up each other’s rhythm, which is always a fear when platooning quarterbacks.
  • Opportunistic defense. Two big takeaways. 1) After Fitz Toussaint broke a big run, Jared Carpenter knocked the ball loose, and the ‘Cats recovered at the NU 3 yard line. 2) Demetrius Dugar dropped back to double cover the fly route on the sideline. Devin Gardner threw an ill-advised pass that ended up in Dugar’s hands with just under 4 minutes to play.

Lowlights

  • I have to lead off with the final pass of regulation, setting up Michigan’s game-tying FG. Roy Roundtree made a spectacular catch (and credit to him for corralling the ball). That said, how is he in single coverage there? No timeouts left and :18 to go in the game.
  • Brandon Williams’s punt that set up the Roundtree pass. I have no problem with the conservative play calling; with not trying to get a final first down with 18 seconds to go. However, why not just boot the punt out of the endzone? Make them go 80 yards in 18 seconds, rather than give Michigan a short field to work with.
  • Injuries. Kain’s ankle was heavily taped after injuring it late in the game. While it was good to see him back in the game, I have to wonder if he’ll be 100% in East Lansing. Venric got his bell rung as well, and he looked slightly out of it for the remainder of the game. Let’s hope they get back to game shape soon.
  • “Almosts.” Near interceptions. Near sacks. Near safeties. Any one of those would have changed the nature of the game. Backed Michigan into an even bigger corner.
  • Not related to anything on the field, but I want to mention it. I love Fitz, but he was celebrating as if he had just won the Rose Bowl when Trevor got hit late and Michigan was flagged in the 4th quarter. Too much.

Moving Forward

Add it all up and we have a Northwestern team with a 7-3 (3-3) record. This is tough to swallow, as they could very easily be 9-1 (5-1) or 10-0 (6-0). But let’s look at the big picture – the ‘Cats can still get to 10 wins this year if they win out (I think they can). With a win against Sparty on Saturday, Northwestern locks up a spot in the Gator Bowl (provided they beat Illinois on Senior Day), according to Rick Pizzo. That puts the ‘Cats at 9-3 heading into Roger’s hometown of Jacksonville for New Year’s Day.

For an even bigger picture – I thought at the beginning of the year this team was at least a year away. The three close losses tell me that year is next year. They’ll be a better team next year. Skill players returning and learning a lot from this season. Even with the tougher schedule (enter Wisc, OSU), I believe this team will hit 10 wins in the regular season next year.

Watching that game hurt. And it hurt badly. But looking at it three days out, I see a lot of positives to take away. Onward, Warriors. Sparty waits.