Post-Game Analysis: Vanderbilt
by Jonathan Hodges
Well, if Northwestern fans forgot the true nature of the Cardiac 'Cats since the
Outback Bowl, they received a nice reminder this evening as NU barely escaped Nashville with a 23-21 win over Vanderbilt. The
Wildcats never trailed, but almost lost their lead a couple of different times
late in the game: once on a missed Vanderbilt field goal when they were down by
two, and again as the Commodores went for two to try and tie late in the fourth
quarter. But, in the end, Northwestern did enough to win, boosting Coach
Fitzgerald opening game record to 5-0.
The game started off rather well
for Northwestern as the 'Cats' defense forced punts on the first six Vanderbilt
possessions and the offense scored on the first two NU possessions, pushing to
lead after a Demos field goal and an impressive Dan Persa TD pass to Jeremy
Ebert. That got NU well into the second quarter with a 10-0 lead, and
everything seemed to be working rather well.
Then, Persa fumbled as he
was scrambling and the tide seemed to turn. Vanderbilt, who had done relatively
little on offense all night, came alive and scored a touchdown on the back of a
37 yard pass completion that came just after the fumble recovery. Although they
missed the extra point, Northwestern was forced into a three and out that ran
very little time off the clock, and Vandy got the ball back with 44 seconds in
the half and drove down the field in time to make a field goal that brought them
within one point going into halftime.
On Vanderbilt's first drive of the
second half, after a Northwestern punt, the Wildcat D grabbed their first
takeaway of the year off of a Justan Vaughn interception. That set up a
balanced Northwestern touchdown drive, this time capped with a Persa TD toss to
Drake Dunsmore to put the 'Cats up by eight midway through the third
The Commodores would respond, though, with some strong running
and a long TD toss to their tight end after Vanderbilt QB Larry Smith avoided
pressure in the backfield. The two point conversion failed, leaving the score
at 17-15 in favor of the Wildcats heading into the fourth quarter. And, in
typical NU fashion, the final period would be an eventful one.
tried to add to their lead early in the fourth, but a bad block by OL Patrick
Ward allowed a defender through who blocked the Stefan Demos kick attempt.
Vanderbilt had an unsuccessful field goal attempt of their own, this one a long
attempt that was pushed too far to the left. Northwestern got the ball back,
though, and drove for a touchdown with a good mix of running and passing that
finished with Persa's third touchdown of the evening, this time to Josh Rooks.
The extra point hold was bobbled, allowing Vanderbilt to stay alive, trailing
With under five minutes to play, the Commodores would once again
drive for a touchdown thanks to a long pass, this time a long 45 yard
completion. The two point conversion attempt to try and tie the game would fail
thanks to a snap over the head of QB Larry Smith. With just about two minutes
remaining in the game, and two timeouts remaining, Vanderbilt chose to kick off
to NU in hopes of forcing a Northwestern punt; it would not come.
Jacob Schmidt had a nice seven yard run to set up an attainable first down that
would seal the game for the Wildcats. But, on second down, Schmidt was hit at
around the line of scrimmage and fumbled, his second fumble of the night.
Thankfully, Persa recovered, but that set up a more questionable 3rd and 7 for
NU. The play call was a Persa run to the outside and he made it to the first
down marker before he was hammered by a Vanderbilt defender. It was
questionable whether or not he made the first down, but it was never measured as
a penalty flag was thrown for a personal foul high hit against the Commodore
tackler. That gave NU a first down and Vanderbilt, having burned their
remaining timeouts, could not stop the clock.
Yes, there were errors in
numerous areas for the 'Cats, which will be detailed later, but in the end
Northwestern did enough to beat an SEC team on the road. As Northwestern fans
know, road wins against BCS conference teams are never easy (heck, road wins are
never easy, period). And, there were some very positive takeaways that will
also be covered below. Overall, it was a shaky but positive start to the season
for Northwestern, and definitely something to build upon going into next week's
home opener against FCS Illinois State (who barely escaped a Division II team in
a come-from-behind 55-54 win this past Thursday).
Player of the
Northwestern QB Dan Persa (19-of-21 passing for 222
yards, 3 TD; 14 carries for 110 yards rushing - sacks removed) There were some
who questioned Persa going into this season, and he showed that he has the
ability to take care of business at the most important position on the field.
Yes, he had a couple of errors, like the fumble - NU's only turnover of the game
- but he was very solid throwing the ball and was clearly the best running
option for the 'Cats (he averaged 7.9 yards per carry with sacks
Northwestern Honorable Mentions
DiNardo (5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QB hurry) DiNardo was quite disruptive from
the defensive tackle position, making some nice tackles in the middle and also
some on the outside after chasing down the ballcarrier. It was nice to see some
production from the middle of the DL, and there should be good things to come
with him and senior DT Corbin Bryant teamed up.
P Brandon Williams (5
punts, 42.4 yards per punt, 3 inside the 20, 59 yard long) The Wildcats
needed to improve their punting game and they did just that with some nice punts
by Williams and solid coverage by the rest of the 'Cats on the field.
Vanderbilt had -1 net punt return yards thanks to four unreturnable punts and
one that featured an immediate hit by Jeravin Matthews on the return
S Brian Peters (11 total tackles, 8 solo tackles, 1 TFL)
Peters led NU with 8 solo tackles on the night and did very well on clean-up
duty by making key tackles on Commodore ballcarriers who made it through the
first two levels of the Northwestern defense. It is vital to have such a safety
in order to prevent even more long plays.
WR Jeremy Ebert (5
receptions, 99 yards, 1 TD; 1 carry for 12 yards rushing) Despite his
limited role over the past two years, it was fairly clear that Ebert was in a
position to have a breakout season after fully recovering from a hip injury this
offseason. He made good on that potential by racking up almost 100 yards as he
led NU with five catches on the night, which included a long 33 yard reception
for a touchdown.
First Quarter: Last season, NU had some pretty
forgettable first quarters (remember spotting Syracuse a 17-0 lead?).
Northwestern did come out to play, though, and jumped out to the aforementioned
10-0 lead and pretty much controlled the game through the first quarter and much
of the second as well.
What to Work on
Teams: A missed block by Patrick Ward on a field goal attempt led to a
block. A bad hold by Brandon Williams led to an extra point that was not even
kicked. A muffed punt by Hunter Bates that he was thankfully able to fall on.
And the 'Cats allowed 25.6 yards on kickoff returns, including a 44 yard return
to start the game. Those are all areas that need to be rectified before the
Wildcats face more formidable opponents on their schedule.
Game: With a touted offensive line up front, many were hopefully NU would
turn the corner and find a running game in 2010. That would not happen, with
Northwestern running backs amassed 51 yards on 26 carries, which works out to
just under 2 yards per carry. That is not good. Yes, there were some decent
runs mixed in there, but the majority were just plain bad. Arby Fields got the
starting nod, but ended the day with -7 yards on 10 carries. But it's not fair
to heap all of the blame on the running backs. The offensive line wasn't
exactly opening up large holes for them, and the play calling was questionable
at times as well. NU needs to do something about this, and quickly, because
Persa cannot lead NU to a successful year while serving as the sole source of
Run Defense: Yes, Vanderbilt has solid running backs, but
the run D was shaky all night long, allowing 199 yards on the ground (after
removing sack numbers), which comes out to 5.4 yards per carry. This allowed
Vanderbilt to sustain drives and stay in the game with more than one chance to
either tie the game or take the lead. All of this despite a plethora of
experience and talent among the front seven defenders for
Overall Defense: Northwestern allowed 432 yards of
total offense to Vanderbilt, who finished last season with a rather anemic
offense and averaged just 306 yards of total offense per game in 2009. This
season, without many additions and even sustaining the loss of four members of
the offensive line, the Commodores looked like they could do almost anything
they wanted on offense starting midway through the second quarter. QB Larry
Smith, who completed under under 50 percent of his passes a season ago,
seemingly lit up the 'Cats with 240 yards and a TD as he completed 57.5% of his
33 pass attempts.
Adjustments: NU started strong but couldn't
keep it going when the ball started bouncing the other way in the second
quarter. Yes, Northwestern never trailed, but Vanderbilt definitely stole the
momentum a few times in the ballgame, and the 'Cats barely survived at the end.
The 'Cats' coaching staff needs to make better adjustments, whether it be on
offense where the running game got stopped time after time, or on defense where
the 'Cats failed to contain the Vanderbilt running attack.
Injuries: NU LB Ben Johnson came out of the game
early but returned and finished the game, and even came very close to nabbing an
interception late in the second quarter (that he dropped). Unfortunately,
though, DT Niko Mafuli came out with a knee injury and did not
Third Down Conversions: Last season, the Wildcats did an
amazing job on converting third downs, ranking 17th nationally with a 45.7%
conversion rate (they converted the 3rd most total nationally with 101
conversions). They have a long way to go to equal that total this year, against
Vanderbilt they converted just 4-of-13 third downs (30.8%). Coincidentally, the
NU defense yielded the exact same third down conversion rate, which is better
than last year's rate of 34.4%.
Penalties: Northwestern had a few
costly penalties, including a late hit personal foul that helped Vanderbilt
position themselves for a field goal just before halftime, but the 'Cats had
less than half the penalty yards of the Commodores. NU had 5 penalties for 40
yards while VU had 9 for 91 yards, including the high hit personal foul that
sealed the game for Northwestern. Speaking of which...
Penalty: The call that sealed the game and drew the ire of Vanderbilt fans
in attendance was a penalty on VU free safety Jay Fullam who tackled Dan Persa
as he approached the first down marker on the last meaningful play of the game.
The hit was high and from certain angles looked like a helmet-to-helmet hit (at
the least, a high hit to the head area). A penalty flag immediately came out
and the personal foul was called. Many directed their disagreement at the
officials, who were pelted with trash as they left the field of play following
the game. BUT, hits to the head were a point of emphasis for officials in the
offseason, with the rules manual stating "Intentional helmet-to-helmet contact
is never legal, nor is any other blow towards an opponent's head." Also, it
states that when in question, it is a foul. Since it was a questionable call,
the officials were beholden to the rule and essentially had to call the
Kickoffs: In spite of Northwestern's troubles stopping
Vanderbilt on kickoff returns (the aforementioned 25.6 yards per kick return
average), NU did win the kickoff field position battle as they averaged 42.8 net
yards per kickoff thanks to a booming 68.4 yards per kick average from Stefan
Demos. The Commodores, meanwhile, averaged just 58.8 yards per kick, with a net
yards per kickoff average of 40.8, 2.0 yards shy of Northwestern's total. While
NU must improve its kick coverage, the net yard average wasn't horrible, and
gave the opponent an average starting position of the 27.2 yard
Momentum: Vanderbilt's first six drives ended in punts, but
they would not punt for the rest of the night. In their last six drives, four
ended in scores, one in a missed field goal, and one in a turnover.
Northwestern, meanwhile, started with consecutive scoring drive but was forced
to punt in five of the next six drives (with the other ending in a fumble).
Thankfully, the 'Cats turned it around at the end of the game, with their final
four drives ending in scores (twice), a missed field goal, and running out the
Punt Returns: Northwestern wasn't the only side having
success preventing punt returns; on the night, the two teams combined for -4
punt return yards on 2 returns (one by each team). The 'Cats did average 9.4
more yards per punt, though.
It was a
game with some positives, some negatives, and a handful of errors for the
Wildcats, but it was a road win against a BCS conference opponent, and, as many
say, "A win's a win." The offense is in good hands with Persa at the helm.
Northwestern has found a punter. And the 'Cats both started and finished the
Yes, there are some things to work on like the run game and
many aspects of defense as well as fixing some special teams errors, but NU
under Coach Fitz has shown the ability to learn and improve week-to-week during
the season. NU gets an opportunity to get better next week at home against FCS
Illinois State, who this past Thursday barely survived in a 55-54 win over
Division II Central Missouri State (which also required a fourth quarter
comeback on their part). The last two nonconference games aren't easy, but also
won't be as difficult as NU's Big Ten opponents.
For now it's time to
quickly savor the win and then the 'Cats will get back to work preparing for
their next challenge.
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