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 quarter.

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.

The 'Cats 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 23-15.

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.

NU's 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 Game

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 omitted).

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

DT Jack 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 man.

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

Special 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.

Run 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 offense.

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 Northwestern.

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.

Random Observations

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 return.

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...

THE 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 penalty.

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 line.

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 clock.

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.

Final Thought

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 game strong.

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.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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