Site: Syracuse, N.Y. (Carrier Dome) Score: Northwestern 42, Syracuse 41 Records: NU (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten), Syracuse (0-1, 0-0 BIG EAST) Next NU Event: Saturday, Sept. 8 vs. Vanderbilt (Ryan Field), 7 p.m. Tickets: Available at NUsports.com or by calling 888-GO-PURPLE
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian came off the bench to engineer a late game-winning touchdown drive as Northwestern posted a wild 42-41 win over Syracuse in the season-opener for both teams Saturday afternoon at Carrier Dome.
NU trailed 41-35 following a 20-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Nassib to Christopher Clark and a two-point conversion by Prince-Tyson Gulley with 2:40 left.
However, Siemian came on in relief of Kain Colter and completed six of seven passes on for 63 yards on the decisive drive, including a nine-yard hookup with Demetrius Fields for a touchdown with 44 seconds left that tied the game. Jeff Budzien's ensuing extra point was the difference.
Junior Venric Mark scored two touchdowns -- including an 82-yard punt return in the first half -- and finished with 281 all-purpose yards. His 134 punt-return yards established a Northwestern single-game record.
With the win, head coach Pat Fitzgerald remained unbeaten in season-openers at the helm of the Wildcats, improving to 7-0. This is the third straight year in which the Wildcats have defeated a BCS-conference opponent on the road in their season-opener.
Forced to punt on its opening drive of the game, Northwestern gave Syracuse excellent field position for its first possession when a mistimed snap prevented NU from getting the kick away. The Wildcats defense responded to limit Syracuse to a field goal, a feat that Northwestern would repeat on SU's next trip into the red zone, keeping the Orange to a 6-0 advantage early on.
Those stops paid dividends for the Wildcats, who received a shot in the arm from Mark when he fielded a punt and found a seam on the right sideline, taking it 82 yards for NU's first touchdown of the season. It was the first punt return for a score since Marquice Cole recorded an 81-yard return to paydirt against Northern Illinois in 2005.
In the second quarter, Syracuse put together a lengthy no-huddle drive covering 83 yards, which was punctuated by a 14-yard run up the middle by Prince Tyson-Gulley, putting the hosts back on top 13-7.
Northwestern managed to move across midfield on its next possession, picking up a first down on a 7-yard completion from Colter to Kyle Prater for Prater's first career catch as a Wildcat. But NU was forced to hand the ball back over the Syracuse when the Wildcats were stopped on a fourth-and-two rushing attempt on SU's side of midfield.
Things turned around for the Wildcats on their ensuing defensive series. On a first-and-10 play for SU, senior cornerback Quinn Evans broke up a would-be completion with a hit on receiver Marcus Sales, popping the ball up for sophomore Chi Chi Ariguzo to pick it out of midair. Ariguzo returned it 49 yards to the SU 21-yard line and, on the next play from scrimmage, Colter picked out Mark on a wheel route down the left sideline for a touchdown that put NU back in front.
Still in the second period, Mark made his presence known once again with a dynamic 52-yard punt return that gave the Wildcats field position inside the Syracuse 30-yard line. Four plays later, Colter used his legs to extend a play, rolling out to his left and finding Christian Jones in the end zone for a 21-yard scoring strike and Jones' first career touchdown reception.
The teams traded turnovers on their next two possessions, and the Wildcats took a 21-13 lead into the locker room despite being outgained in yardage, 231-173.
The second half opened fortuitously for the Wildcats, and once again Ariguzo was at the center of the action. Starting from its own 28-yard line, Syracuse attempted a lateral swing pass that fell incomplete and was ruled a fumble by the officials, with Ariguzo there to pick up the loose ball. At the urging of his teammates, Ariguzo took off for the end zone uncontested by SU, giving Northwestern a commanding 28-13 lead and taking the air out of the Orange faithful in attendance.
NU put an exclamation point on their efforts on their next drive, which saw Colter complete three straight passes before Mark took over to the tune of four rushes for 46 yards. That brought the Wildcats to the 1-yard line, where Colter followed the lead of center Brandon Vitabile for a short rushing touchdown.
Nevertheless, Syracuse was able to begin chipping away at the lead, scoring first on a 7-yard pass from Nassib to Sales before striking on a 50-yard bomb to Jeremiah Kobena to pull to within eight points at the start of the fourth quarter.
Nassib and Kobena hooked up again on a 7-yard score with 6:32 left to get the hosts within two, but a potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving Northwestern in front by a slim 35-33 margin. The Wildcats went three-and-out on their next drive before the Orange went 74 yards in eight plays to take the lead with 2:40 left.
Siemian marched the 'Cats down the field, though. Facing 3rd-and-14 at the Syracuse 26 with just under a minute left, Siemian scrambled for seven yards and the Orange was called for a personal foul on a late hit on the play. With 1st-and-goal at the 9, Sieman hit Fields with a perfectly thrown ball on a corner route in the end zone and Fields was able to get one foot inbounds to help NU earn the win.
Colter (14-21, 134 yards, 2 TDs) and Siemian (8-11, 79 yards, 1 TD) combined to complete 22 of 32 pass attempts for 213 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Mark carried 14 times for 82 yards, while Fields posted career highs with eight receptions and 83 yards.
Northwestern returns to Evanston for its 2012 home-opener on Saturday, Sept. 8, when it hosts SEC foe Vanderbilt under the lights (7 p.m. CT). Season and group tickets for all seven Northwestern home games this fall are available on the NUsports.com online ticketing center.