Sept. 12, 2009
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- It was a win and, in the record book, style points don't apply. There, as well, were a successful two-minute drive and an interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Ben Johnson and Stefan Demos just burying a 49-yard field goal with a mere six seconds remaining to finally put away Eastern Michigan. "It's a kicker's dream to have the opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal," he would later say.
Still, as his coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted after his team's narrow escape, "To win a football game the way that we did is worrisome across the board." Here are 10 reasons from that board:
(1) Last week, while losing by 13 to Army, the Eagles gained 95 yards on the ground, were sacked six times for 51 yards in losses and ended their day with 40 net rushing yards. In stark contrast, on Saturday at Ryan Field, they gained 183 yards on the ground, suffered but a single sack for six yards in losses and ended their day with 172 net rushing yards.
Even more tellingly, their offensive linemen regularly gashed their 'Cat defensive counterparts and opened holes that seemed sometimes to stretch from Evanston all the way to Winnetka. "It's easy when you see the ball run like you did today to point the finger at the defensive line. But I'm not poised and prepared to do that yet," Fitzgerald later demurred. "I need to watch the video, see if the linebacker was not fitting properly, was the defensive lineman not getting off blocks, were we not playing certain plays properly. So there's a lot to look at and grow from. But it is disappointing. We should be better than that."
Was there a problem with the defensive scheme, he was asked.
"I wouldn't say we were out-schemed," he bluntly admitted. "I'd say we were outplayed."
(2) Only in the second quarter, in fact, did the 'Cat defense perform at a contender's level. In those 15 minutes it helped stake its team to a 21-0 lead and limited the Eagles to a mere 30 net yards. But in the first quarter Eastern unfurled 10- and 8-play drives that resulted in no points; in the third quarter it put together a 12-play drive that ended with its first touchdown; and, in the fourth quarter, it scored the pair of touchdowns that made Demos' late heroics necessary.
"They had some momentum plays and, obviously, we didn't go out there and seize it back," noted Fitzgerald. "That's the game of football, it's a game of momentum. When you've got it, you've got to keep it, you've got to sustain it and you've got to use it to your advantage. And when you lose it, you've got to fight, scratch and claw to get it back."
Said Johnson more succinctly: "They brought it to us."
(3) The 'Cats leading tackler was safety Brendan Smith, who ended with a dozen. Their leaders off the defensive line were tackles Marshall Thomas and Corbin Bryant, who had three each. That entire line, in the end, was credited with only 10 of its team's 68 tackles.
(4) Defensive end Corey Wootton, who entered the year as an All-America candidate, had only a single tackle, was hardly a dominant-and-visible force and appeared, at game's end, to be not fully recovered from his off-season knee surgery. Asked about that, Fitzgerald, who himself was forced to return from a serious injury back when he was a player, said: "Are you 100-percent healthy? No. You're not 100-percent healthy until you get out there for maybe about a month.
"I've said all along that he's pretty close to being healthy and most of that's mental, most of that's between your ears. You've got to get out there and get twisted around, get bent around, get in a pile. I know that wholeheartedly from experience. I remember that trip down to Tobacco Road when I was a player (in his first game back against Wake Forest) and I wasn't very good early. Just to get back in the mix, you continue to get your confidence back one rep at a time. Again, I haven't watched the video so I don't want to make that comparison to Corey. But he's fighting through getting back on the field."
(5) Sherrick McManis, the 'Cats best corner, watched Saturday's festivities in street clothes while nursing a tender hamstring. "We hope to have him back next week. He got injured a couple weeks ago and I was hoping to get (him) through the game last week unscathed and he obviously didn't. But I hope to have him out at practice by Tuesday," said Fitzgerald. But bad hammies can linger and a corner obviously needs two good ones.
(6) Once again, as they had a week earlier against Towson, the `Cats got an opponent down early and failed to stomp, kick, strangle and choke the life out of it. "We need to play like it's zero-zero the whole game," said running back Stephen Simmons. "I think we started just looking up and seeing that we were up (21) and thinking it was going to be similar to last weekend. This team battled back and we didn't respond like we should until the end of the game."
"Last week we weren't satisfied, but we didn't do the correct things to learn from those mistakes and try to fix them and get better. . .," added Smith. "I thought we would have learned a little better from last week. But, still, we're growing as a team. We're trying to figure out who we are and what we're going to be. As long as we keep pulling off Ws, I'll be happy at the end of the day. But we need to keep on improving."
"For what it's worth," concluded quarterback Mike Kafka, "we got away with one. . . We need to keep the pedal down and keep momentum, keep a rhythm."
(7) Kafka himself did choreograph the final drive and ended 14-of-24 for 158 yards, which are respectable enough numbers. But, too often on this afternoon, he missed open receivers and then suffered a drive-killing interception midway through the fourth quarter when his arm was hit just as he threw.
(8) Hearing Smith say this: "We needed this. It didn't seem like the attitude on the team was we're going to be successful because we made strides last year. But we need to know that you have to work every single day, have to be in the film room, have to do the little things and each play matters and that the smallest details make the biggest difference."
(9) And this: "We're not playing with that same passion we had last year. We have to have energy, we have to have more life. It's kind of like we're focused, but we're not, maybe we're too focused. We need more energy. . . Everyone on our team has to be upbeat, energetic and excited to play every single down, no matter what the score is."
(10) And, especially, this: "We need to put more effort into it. It's got to mean a little more. That's with everyone on the team, every aspect, whether you're on the sideline or on the field, you just have to want it more, play with a little more energy and have greater focus, a sense of urgency."