Commentary: 2009 Season Review
by Jonathan Hodges
After giving myself and the rest of Wildcat Nation time to recover from the
heartbreaking end to the 2009 season, it's time to review the season that was,
which is a pleasure as Northwestern exceeded most reasonable expectations going
into the season (although they matched my preseason prediction of 8-4). After
losing every starting offensive skill position player to graduation from last
year's squad, the bar was set relatively low, although most expected NU to still
reach .500 and make a lower tier bowl.
Like last year, though, the
Wildcats seemingly ignored the pundits' thoughts as they turned things around
down the stretch to reach the eight-win plateau, propelling them to a January
1st Outback Bowl appearance, their first New Year's Day bowl game since the
Citrus Bowl following the 1996 Big Ten co-Championship season. And we all know
what happened in that game.
To start off the year, Northwestern easily
demolished FCS/I-AA bottom-feeder Towson, and looked to be headed to a record
nine consecutive nonconference regular season wins (they had a five game winning
streak going into the year and four win-able games on the slate in 2009). They
continued rolling with a dedication to running the football (NU ran it on over
two thirds of offensive snaps through the first two games) and took a 21-0 first
half lead over Eastern Michigan in the second game of the year.
things got interesting. The defense suddenly looked porous as EMU used the
ground game to come back and tie the game at 24 late in the fourth quarter.
Northwestern needed a decent kick return and big drive to put kicker Stefan
Demos in position to hit the game-winner with six seconds left on the clock,
making that NU's first game-winning field goal since the 2001 win over Michigan
State. Unfortunately, such a close win over an inferior opponent didn't do a
lot to put confidence in this year's 'Cats (EMU ended up going 0-12 in
The next game was a trip to the Carrier Dome to face a down
Syracuse squad that was rebuilding under a new head coach. In fact, five of
Northwestern's first six opponents had new head coaches, along with NU's bowl
opponent. The Wildcats defense, looking to be one of the best units in the past
decade with plenty of experience and talent returning, experienced multiple
costly injuries that forced a couple of redshirt freshmen into service against
Unfortunately for NU, an early fumble and that injury-ridden
defense allowed Syracuse to jump out front 17-0. Amazingly, though, NU's Mike
Kafka responded by completing his first 16 passes to set a school record and
ended up throwing for 390 yards and 3 TDs on the day and even caught a TD pass
from Andrew Brewer. The Wildcats used this pass-based offensive attack to take
a 34-27 lead in the fourth but couldn't hang on, with Kafka's interception late
ending in Syracuse's game-winning field goal drive. The loss left Northwestern
fans scratching their heads about how the 'Cats could once again blow a game to
a seemingly inferior opponent (see Indiana in 2008 and Duke in
Things didn't get any easier with Minnesota coming to town the
following week to kick of Big Ten play, as the Gophers used a dedication to the
run and WR Eric Decker to win despite Northwestern once again holding a lead in
the fourth quarter (two costly Mike Kafka fumbles deep in NU territory in that
period sealed the game). NU then headed to Purdue to face a hard-luck squad
that was 1-3 but lost those three games by very slim margins. Once again, NU
got behind early (21-3) but surged thanks to a deluge of turnovers by Purdue
(five fumbles and one interception). The 'Cats turned those into points,
finally taking the lead with just over two minutes left in the game and holding
off a Purdue drive to the Northwestern five yard line for the win.
Wildcats, then at 3-2, headed home to face winless Miami (OH), who the Wildcats
defeated with a formidable defensive effort (not allowing the RedHawks to score
until just over one minute left in the game), although much like the EMU game,
the poor offensive showing didn't build much faith in NU going into a much
tougher second half of the season. At 4-2, Northwestern's bowl hopes weren't
that bright and at signs were pointing to a lower tier bowl at
Kicking off the second half of the season, NU traveled to MSU to
face a formidable Spartans team. Thanks to a goal line stand and a second
quarter TD pass to Andrew Brewer, the 'Cats led 7-0 going into the second half,
but a few mistakes allowed Michigan State to score 24 straight points to
essentially seal the game early in the fourth quarter. That loss left the 'Cats
at 4-3 and set up a homecoming showdown against Indiana that was essentially a
bowl elimination game.
Like Northwestern fans have become accustomed, the
Wildcats love to live up to that Cardiac 'Cats nickname, and the Indiana game
would exemplify that. Northwestern once again dug themselves into a seemingly
insurmountable hole, facing a 28-3 deficit midway through the second quarter.
But the Wildcats never gave up, with Mike Kafka leading two quick
touchdown-scoring drives before halftime to cut the deficit to 11. The defense
played its part by keeping Indiana off of the scoreboard the rest of the way,
including getting a safety in the third quarter off of a blocked punt and
keeping Indiana out of the end zone as they went for it on fourth and goal late
in the game, coming up just a couple of yards shy of the goal line. The
defensive star of the game was walk-on sophomore Ricky Weina who was forced into
action thanks to multiple injuries at the cornerback position. And Kafka once
again led NU on a drive to put kicker Stefan Demos in position to nail the
game-winner with 21 seconds left.
The game suddenly put new life in the
the 'Cats season, although they would have to face a formidable Penn State squad
the following week on Halloween. Northwestern came out hot on the arm and legs
of Mike Kafka, going out to a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter. The
Wildcats led 13-10 at halftime but the key play of the game was in the second
quarter when QB Mike Kafka tweaked his hamstring on a QB-keeper. As Penn State
Head Coach Joe Paterno said after the game about PSU adjustments in the second
half, "The adjustment we made is their quarterback got hurt." Penn State tied
it up early in the third quarter with a field goal and then tore off three
touchdowns in a span of less than four minutes in the fourth quarter to run away
with the game.
At that point, Northwestern headed to Iowa to face the No.
4 (BCS) team in the nation, Iowa, who was undefeated and looking forward to
their bout with Ohio State the following week for the conference title as NU
would seemingly be just a speedbump on the way (nevermind that NU had won three
of the last four meetings between the two teams). In typical Northwestern
fashion, they essentially spotted Iowa 10 points before six minutes had elapsed
in the game. With Northwestern's offense struggling against a stout Iowa D, NU
needed a spark. Early in the second quarter, they got one.
play of the season for Northwestern came on defense deep in Iowa territory.
Hawkeye QB Ricky Stanzi ran a naked bootleg in the end zone, but NU DE Corey
Wootton (who spent most of the season a shell of his former self, recovering
from knee surgery following an injury sustained in the Alamo Bowl a year
earlier) was not fooled. He took off after Stanzi, sacking him in the end zone
and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Northwestern teammate Marshall Thomas
to put NU on the board. Stanzi also injured his ankle on the clean tackle,
forcing him to leave the game (he would not return until Iowa's bowl game).
Keep in mind that Northwestern was also down a QB, with Mike Kafka playing but
unable to move too much sporting the hamstring injury.
Backup QB Dan
Persa tossed a TD pass to Drake Dunsmore on Northwestern's next drive (that
started on an interception of Iowa's backup QB on his first pass attempt),
giving the Wildcats a lead that they would not relinquish. The 'Cats would add
a field goal in the third quarter and use a formidable defensive effort to seal
one of the biggest upsets in school history and the biggest road win by
Northwestern since knocking off Wisconsin in 2000. The win suddenly propelled
NU to bowl eligiblity at 6-4 and put the 'Cats in a position to make some noise
down the home stretch.
The 'Cats then headed to Champaign for the first
battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy after the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk was retired
following last year's NU-Illinois tilt. Despite a bad day for kicker Stefan
Demos (who missed three field goal attempts), Northwestern won thanks to running
off 21 straight points in the middle quarters and holding off the Illini late
thanks to a Sherrick McManis pick that was very close, but reviewed and upheld.
That win virtually guaranteed the Wildcats a second straight bowl berth (for
only the second time in school history), but the Wildcats wanted more with No.
16 Wisconsin coming to Evanston for the regular season
Northwestern finally started things off strong, taking a 10-0
lead thanks to precise passing from Kafka, and even added some trickery in the
second quarter with a 38 yard TD pass from WR Zeke Markshausen to Sidney Stewart
to open up a 24-14 lead (NU would also add a FG before the half). In the second
half, the 'Cats were held to two more field goals, and while Wisconsin made an
effort to claw back, Northwestern once again sealed the game with an
interception, this time by Jordan Mabin as the 'Cats finished off the regular
season with a 33-31 win to give them a three-game win streak and an 8-4 record
going into the bowl game.
And in a bit of a surprise, Northwestern at 8-4
"jumped" Wisconsin at 9-3 for a spot in the Outback Bowl on January 1st,
somewhat avenging snubbings of the Wildcats by that bowl in 2000 and 2008. This
set up an interesting game against an SEC opponent, Auburn, which the pundits
again said Northwestern had no chance against.
Let's just say that set up
one of the craziest and most memorable games of all time, a game in which
Northwestern clawed back from 14 point second half deficits twice and eluded a
certain loss multiple times late in the fourth quarter and in overtime.
Unfortunately, the 'Cats ended up losing as they went for the win on a fake
field goal from the five yard line in overtime, coming up two yards short of
Northwestern's first bowl win in 61
It was quite a season indeed,
featuring the biggest comeback in school history (NU coming back from a 25 point
deficit against Indiana), one of the biggest upsets in school history (a win at
No. 4 Iowa ruining their undefeated season), and one of the (if not the)
craziest games ever (the Outback Bowl loss to Auburn).
a slew of injuries, particularly on defense, backups and even third-stringers
responded to propel the 'Cats to victory when they needed it most. And on
offense, the Wildcats managed to score 25.9 points per game despite losing every
offensive skill position starter from the previous season. That even likely
propelled QB Mike Kafka to a potential NFL career despite starting at
Northwestern for just one full season.
The fact is that Northwestern
football is now in the midst of one of the most sustained runs of success in
program history under the still-young head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats
will head into 2010 looking to head to their third consecutive bowl, something
that hasn't been done in NU history. Fitz is running the program the right way
and is bringing sustained success to Northwestern, something that will only help
raise the perception of the program going forward.
Now the question is
when will fans follow the success of the team and begin filling up Ryan Field
(2009's average attendance was the lowest since 1980, and, yes, that span
includes the longest losing streak in Div. I-A/FCS history) and when Fitz will
lead his team to a Big Ten championship.
Look out for my
postseason awards, grades, and my prediction evaluation coming up soon, and
don't forget signing day coming Feb. 3.
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