Sept. 22, 2013
Skip Myslenski provides a detailed look back at Northwestern's fourth and final nonconference game of the season, a 35-21 triumph over Maine.
It is late in the second quarter and finally the 'Cats offense, which has been struggling, is on a drive that has carried it to the Maine 39. Now Kain Colter drops and spots Tony Jones crossing on a skinny post, and here he delivers a pass that appears both a little high and behind his receiver.
Jones reaches for it and gets his hands on it, but then it pops free and is picked by Black Bear corner Axel Ofori. What would he say about that play, Jones is later asked.
"I'd say I've got to make that play," the 'Cat wideout bluntly avows. "In order to win these games, now looking forward to the Big Ten season, those are the types of plays that you've got to make to beat teams like Ohio State. So I know two weeks from now when we're on the field (against the Buckeyes), I've definitely got to make those plays."
The `Cats defeated Maine by 14on Saturday to push their record to 4-0. The `Cats are ranked as they enter their bye week in advance of their Big Ten opener with the undefeated Buckeyes. But those same `Cats, on the past two Saturdays against opponents from lesser conferences, have too often struggled and stumbled offensively, which they readily admit.
"It's similar maybe to last week (against Western Michigan), where we maybe couldn't get out of our own way a little bit at times and didn't execute, self-inflicted wounds offensively," Pat Fitzgerald would say after his team's win over the Black Bears.
"A win's a win," added running back Mike Trumpy, who gashed the Bears for 94 net rushing yards. "But at the same time we understand there's a lot we need to improve on. Lucky for us, we've got two weeks to do that."
"It's obviously great to win that ball game," concluded Jones, who ended his day with six receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown. "But we know we've got so much left in the tank, which at the same time is pretty exciting. To know we're winning ball games, but for the second straight week, at the end of the game, knowing we could have played a lot better. It just keeps us hungry. We know the potential this team has if we actually play up to our capabilities."
The Wildcats offense did play up to its potential on its first possession Saturday, smartly driving 76 yards in nine plays to go up seven on Colter's 27-yard touchdown pass to Jones. But on its second this occurred: Colter missed on consecutive throws to Jones and Dan Vitale; the whole unit was called for a false start for not having 11 men set at the snap; Colter was thrown for a two-yard loss on a designed run; right tackle Paul Jorgensen was called for a false start; and the 'Cats punted after netting just two yards on six plays.
Trevor Siemian took over for Colter on the next series and picked up a pair of first downs on completions to Kyle Prater (for 18 yards) and Christian Jones (for 11). But now this drive stalled and ended in a Brandon Williams' punt, which is how their fourth possession ended as well (after one first down). Then came their fifth and last possession of the opening half and it concluded with that interception off Tony Jones' hands. "We," Fitzgerald would later say, "just need to execute better across the 50 as an offense."
And what do they need to do to do that?
"I think this team needs to start school and get a week off, and then I think we can fix the things we need to correct and need to fix," he said. "I think when you sputter a little bit on offense, I think sometimes the guys start trying to figure out what's going on. It's our job to help them correct it, help them understand it was a one-man breakdown here, maybe they had us schematically there, and just keep plugging along. But again. I'm going to have a hard time being overly critical when we've been able to move the ball pretty well through the whole course of the year. We've just got to score more points."
Sometime during those offensive struggles, middle linebacker Damien Proby later reported, "Kain came to a few of the defensive players and said, 'Hey, guys, get us going. Get the ball rolling right now and we'll get it going from there.' We're not going to jump for excitement for any bad offensive play. But we're happy to go out there and put the fire out at any point."
Maine had nicked his defense during the first half, twice putting together drives that ate up more than five minutes, but at the end of each it had missed field goal attempts. (The first was blocked by defensive end Tyler Scott, the second floated wide left.) The `Cats were still up seven, then, when Colter was picked, and now Proby personally put out that fire by collecting a pass that bounced off Black Bear wide receiver Derrick Johnson. "I think that might be the first ball he's ever caught in his life here," Fitzgerald later said, and here he rumbled with it 49 yards for the touchdown that put the `Cat up 14 at halftime.
"That was an exciting one. I'm happy for it," Proby later said, and then here came the defense again on Maine's first possession of the second half. This time Proby flushed Bear quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, got his hands on the hips of Wasilewski, who desperately threw a dying quail that defensive end Dean Lowry picked and returned 19 yards for the third `Cat score of the day.
"[Proby] made a great play, got to the quarterback, brought him down, and the quarterback just threw it up for grabs," Lowry later said. "I was right place at the right time, and I ran it back."
That touchdown put the 'Cats up 21 and effectively ended this game. Their offense would now go to the ground, passing just twice in the second half. But it would mount scoring drives of 74 and 70 yards. Their defense would give up three scores. But the first came after a questionable roughing call on safety Traveon Henry; the second came after corner Dwight White was beaten on a 59-yard explosion play; and the last came in garbage time. Their final margin of victory would suffer in comparison to the 76-point beat down Ohio State put on Florida A&M. But, said Fitzgerald, "We couldn't be any better.
"It's not about style as much as it is about substance. We can only go 1-0 each week and that's what we've done."
The coaches and players met on Sunday. On Monday the players are off and the coaches go recruiting. They return from the road on Wednesday and that night gather in their office, where they will begin game-planning for Ohio State.
"We didn't come here to be a Division I program in the Big Ten to fear any opponent we're going to go against," Proby would say when asked if the Buckeyes` big win Saturday gave the `Cats pause. "We're excited for the opportunity to play a very well-coached, disciplined team. That's as good as it's going to get."
"We've been part of a lot of games that were important," Fitzgerald would say when asked about the importance of that Oct. 5 game. "This is the first opportunity to play Big Ten football. That's why it's important. That's why our guys come here. One of the first things we talk about in recruiting is the opportunity to play Big Ten football at the best academic school in the country. Our guys are excited for that challenge, to play in this conference.
"We got through the nonconference slate unblemished and that's the goal, and now everything starts over. Everything starts over when you go to Big Ten play."
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