Commentary: Time to Respond
by Jonathan Hodges

Northwestern was sitting pretty heading into Bloomington this past Saturday: the offense finally came alive against Purdue the previous week, putting up 6 TDs, the defense was generating turnovers (NU had 14 its past 4 games), the 'Cats had already achieved bowl eligibility with its 6th win of the year, and NU would be facing what appeared to be the worst team in the conference - which should have given the Wildcats its 7th win to lock up a bowl berth and set up a matchup of 7-1 teams in Minneapolis the following week (and would also keep NU in a fight for a January 1st bowl bid).  Northwestern had won the games that it should have won so far this year: going undefeated (4-0) in the nonconference slate for the first time since 1963 and starting the season with the most consecutive wins (5) since 1962.  While the MSU game was a disappointment, the 'Cats found a way to bounce back big with a solid victory over Purdue the following week.  This all set up what should have been a start to an exciting final run for Northwestern.

Instead, what 'Cats fans saw was a virtual meltdown of this NU team: the Wildcats laid an egg against Indiana as they coughed up 5 turnovers, lost the starting QB (Bacher, with a hamstring pull) and RB (Sutton, with a wrist injury that will require surgery), and proceeded to lose to a team that was riding a 5 game losing streak without a win over an FBS/I-A team to that point.  While the defense was respectable for much of the game, they gave up a couple of big plays that allowed the Hoosiers to capitalize and get just enough offense for the win.  The offense just plain turned the ball over too much.  And special teams didn't help their cause either, with a missed XP, fumbled kickoff return, and allowing some significant kickoff returns.

Uncharacteristic of the team that had been playing good defense all year and what Fitz has been preaching about starting each week 0-0 and focusing on each opponent, NU didn't look prepared for the Hoosiers and choked down the stretch.  And the loss had a much bigger impact than just dropping NU to 6-2 (which is still a respectable record); NU's toughest stretch is coming up (against 7-1 Minnesota, 7-2 OSU, a tough trip to Michigan, and then a home matchup against the dangerous Illinois) and the 'Cats still need that 7th win to secure a bowl bid and maybe more to stay out of Detroit.  And without Sutton, and especially Bacher, that looks like a daunting task.  While Conteh is a competent backup RB, the roster gets a bit thin after that (Simmons and Schmidt are the next options).  More troubling, though, is QB - Kafka has started games in the past (2006) but didn't look good and didn't run an offense that was anything close to what NU is running now, and he folded under pressure on NU's final offensive drive against Indiana (2 fumbles, one for -24 yards, the other lost to seal the game), and Persa is untested as a collegiate QB.

Despite all of that, now is the time for Northwestern to respond and show that it can do what it takes to win again.  NU hit a bit of a roadbump against MSU but responded in a big way against Purdue.  Now is the time to do that again: injuries happen and teams lose, but if this team is going to "flush" a game, this is the time to do it.  There is talent all over the field for NU, and it's time for the seniors to step up and lead and the underclassmen to come in and make a difference when given the opportunity.  Conteh has a couple of 100+ yard games in relief of Sutton last year, and now it's time for him to make a difference.  Kafka and Persa now have a chance to step up if Bacher isn't 100% against Minnesota (which is yet to be determined).  The defense has done well so far this year, but now is the time to work to make up for the losses on offense.  Williams has done a nice job stepping in for Arrington, and the DL has created good pressure up front, but now is the time to add a bit of intensity and to finish things off to help the offense.

While Minnesota is at 7-1 and looking strong, they are beatable.  Northwestern must start by focusing there.  The defense will have to step up bigtime to slow down the high powered Gopher offense, featuring QB Weber and WR Decker, and the offense will have to protect the football (Minnesota is #1 in the nation in turnover margin).  But, if the 'Cats can pull off the upset, they can get back into the thick of things in Big Ten bowl positioning.  Next up is a tough matchup against a strong OSU team, which one may dismiss, but maybe the 'Cats can catch the Buckeyes in a letdown game.  Traveling to Ann Arbor is tough, but Michigan's offense is virtually non-existent and they carry a 2-6 record and are on the verge of postseason elimination.  Finally, NU caps off the year at home against in-state rival Illinois, where anything can happen (Illinois is a disappointing 4-4 now).  There are win-able games there for the Wildcats, and NOW is the time for the 'Cats to pull off their mantra of RESPOND and 0-0 to focus on each matchup and execute ath the highest level.

Now is also the time for NU fans to jump on board and support this team.  The wheels have not come off, this team is 6-2, about where many expected them to be now, and if they play at their best they have multiple potential wins on the schedule.  Good teams can respond to adversity and now is the time to show that they are a good team.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.