Post-Game Analysis: Central Michigan
by Jonathan Hodges

For the second time in three seasons, the Northwestern Wildcats (4-0, 0-0) went undefeated in regular season non-conference play thanks to a 30-25 win over Central Michigan (2-2) in an error filled game for both teams (and the officials, for that matter).  While it wasn't pretty, it was a win for the 'Cats, and we'll all take that any day.

NU started things off pretty well in the first quarter with an 11 play 73 yard touchdown drive on their second possession of the game capped off by, what else, Dan Persa's 7th TD toss of the year, a 24 yarder to Jeremy Ebert on a third-and-long.  Although NU had the extra point blocked, it was still a decent start to the game.

Unfortunately, the NU defense didn't fare quite as well, allowing CMU to answer quickly on a 5 play quick strike TD drive that included two plays of 20+ yards.  Thankfully NU DT Jack DiNardo kept the Chippewas from taking the lead by blocking their extra point attempt, which turned out to be just the second of multiple special teams gaffes for both sides.

That trend continued in the second quarter when DiNardo blocked Central Michigan's potential lead-taking FG attempt, again preserving the tie game.  That gave NU momentum, and the offense took advantage by driving down and punching it in for a 13-7 lead thanks to a Jacob Schmidt TD run and (finally) a successful XP try.

NU would get the ball back on the second play of the ensuing drive thanks to a fumble recovery by senior Corbin Bryant, putting the Wildcats in great field position at the CMU 25.  But, the moment everyone knew would come eventually did: Persa threw his first interception of the year (after 92 consecutive pass attempts without an INT on the year), which also ruined a prime red zone opportunity.

The first half wasn't quite over though, as CMU systematically drove down the field and tied the game on an 11 play 88 yard drive.  The 'Cats would give it one last shot to take a lead into halftime, as a 23 yard pass completion from Persa to Demetrius Fields gave PK Stefan Demos room for a 45 yard field goal try.  Unfortunately, the kick went wide right and NU went into halftime tied against a feisty opponent.

After forcing a three-and-out, NU had a relatively long (play-wise) 11 play 46 yard drive for a FG to give them a lead early in the second half.  It wouldn't take very long for NU to break it open, though, as Quentin Williams dropped back into the flat and intercepted a pass on the very first play after the ensuing kickoff.  On the next play following that, NU took a two score lead thanks to another Persa to Ebert TD toss (their 4th such connection of the year).

After trading punts, including a rather bad one by Central Michigan, NU would add to its lead thanks to a 5 play 47 yard drive, with all of those yards on the ground and capped by a 13 yard Schmidt TD run as he earned his first multi-TD game of his career.  That put NU up by 17 in the fourth quarter, leaving the 'Cats feeling rather comfortable at that point, especially after forcing a CMU three-and-out on the ensuing drive.  To that point, the Chippewas had gained just 56 yards and 1 first down in the second half.

But a big mistake on the following drive would give CMU new life.  NU, trying to bleed the clock, had moved the ball for one first down and Arby Fields had the football and headed towards the sideline on the outside but fumbled, and a Central Michigan recovery gave them a chance to try and surmount a 17 point comeback with 11:07 remaining in regulation.

A three-and-a-half minute drive concluded with a touchdown, but yet another blocked extra point (this time by Niko Mafuli) left CMU down 30-19.  The Wildcats did all they could to bleed clock and were about to double their efforts to four minutes thanks to a costly facemask personal foul on the Chippewas.  But NU was forced to punt, and CMU had the ball at their 14 yard line.

The Chippewas had a little bit of trouble moving the ball down the field, though, and eventually faced a 4th-and-15 from the NU 45 yard line.  But CMU QB Ryan Radcliff completed a 20 yard pass to convert followed by a 25 yard TD toss to WR Kito Poblah, who led all receivers with 6 catches for 89 yards on the day.  CMU was forced to go for two which was thankfully quashed by the Northwestern defenders as Radcliff was sacked.

The final play of consequence in the game was the ensuing onside kick, which NU's Drake Dunsmore recovered with relative ease as he moved forward and tightly grabbed onto the football to secure the win for the 'Cats.

One item which I didn't mention in my review of the game was the amount of sloppy play on both sides of the ball and from the officials.  There were a total of 20 accepted penalties for 196 yards combined, along with 5 combined turnovers and 4 plays changed by replay (for the officials).  Oh, and don't forget the three blocked extra points (two by the 'Cats and one by CMU), the blocked FG (by NU) and the missed FG (by NU's Demos).  While, as noted by Persa in the post-game press conference, it was a boost in confidence to realize NU can win a game against a respectable opponent while making so many errors, it still wasn't pretty.

But, the most important thing is that Northwestern pulled out the win and did indeed come out of non-conference play unscathed.  It sounds like Coach Fitz and the 'Cats know they won't have very long to celebrate, though, with a lot of things to correct before hitting the road to play the Big Ten 2010 lid-lifter in Minneapolis next week.

Player of the Game

Nobody.  That's right, nobody gets my nod for player of the game.  While Persa had yet another solid outing (23-of-30 for 280 yards passing and 2 TDs along with 13 carries for 55 yards on the ground), he did throw his first interception of the year, which was also in the red zone.  Ebert had 2 TD grabs and 83 receiving yards on the day to lead the 'Cats.  And the defense added three more takeaways.  But the most memorable aspect of the day was the gaffes all over the field on both sides of the ball, and that prevents anyone from winning this outright.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB Dan Persa (23-of-30 passing for 280 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 13 carries for 55 yards rushing with sacks removed)  Persa had, well, yet another great performance throwing the ball while also running a bit with some success.  He did throw his first INT of the year, though (which everyone knew would come sooner or later, so at least he got it off his back).

WR Jeremy Ebert (5 receptions for 83 yards and 2 TDs)  Ebert has been Persa's favorite target in 2010, amassing 17 catches for 331 yards and 4 receiving TDs on the season, leading the 'Cats in each of those categories.

DT Jack DiNardo (2 blocks)  DiNardo single handedly kept 4 points off the scoreboard for CMU, and as you may have noticed by the final winning margin of 5, those points were quite significant.  Although he didn't make as much noise on the defensive unit as earlier games this year, he made his presence felt on special teams this time around.

RB Mike Trumpy (12 carries for 53 yards)  Although he didn't rack up a ton of total yards and he didn't find his way into the game until the second half, Trumpy made an impact on the offense, actually breathing some life into the Wildcat running game.  His first carry of the game was a nice 11 yard run and he also added another 11 yarder along with runs of 9 and 8 yards later on in which he made the moves he needed to and ran north-south in order to pick up valuable yards on the ground, something other NU RBs haven't necessarily done this season.

What to Work on

Mental Errors

The 'Cats had 11 penalties for 106 yards on the day which either put the NU offense well behind the chains or kept the defense on the field for longer than necessary.  Coach Fitz's teams have routinely been at or near the top nationally in least penalties and penalty yardage and this was a very uncharacteristic performance from the team.  Add to that the extra point that was blocked and the field goal that was missed, and that equals a significant amount of costly errors.  Needless to say, Fitz will have them working to correct these mental lapses heading into conference play.

Running Game

Yes, NU outgained CMU 149-76 on the ground (moving NU to 9-0 since the start of last season when outrushing its opponent), but they weren't exactly pretty doing so, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry on the day.  Also, NU still hasn't had a run of longer than 25 yards since the 2008 season, and the ability to break off a long run is something that can give a huge boost to the offense.

Avoiding Big Plays

The NU defense did a pretty good job on the day, but in the end gave up 9 plays of 20 yards or longer (just one of those was a run).  Some of that has to do with injuries to NU safeties, with both Jared Carpenter and David Arnold out due to injury, forcing sophomore Hunter Bates and redshirt freshman Davion Fleming into a lot of action, particularly since NU used a lot of nickel defense that had both of them on the field in addition to Brian Peters, one of the regularly starting safeties.

Random Observations


There was a nice crowd for the game, most decked out in purple include the essentially full student section, and the recorded attendance actually topped 30,000 (30,075) for the first time in a non-conference game since 2005 against Northern Illinois.  This was in fact the first thing mentioned by Coach Fitz in his post-game press conference.  Hopefully it is a trend that will continue with some important October games coming up against Big Ten competition.

Injuries and Recoveries

NU's weakest position at this point definitely looks like safety, where two potential starters were sidelined for this game.  But, Carpenter may be able to return shortly (he was listed as doubtful, not out, heading into this week) and Arnold is expected to return sometime soon.  The DL got a bit of a boost with the return of Mafuli this game.  And on the OL, Keegan Grant returned from his illness and actually started this game.

Points off Turnovers

Northwestern went +1 on turnover margin in the game, moving them to +7 on the season.  The 'Cats also turned 2 of those turnovers into touchdowns, giving them an impressive 55 points off turnovers so far this year (13.8 points per game off turnovers).  NU's opponents have just 21 points off turnovers (14 of them came in this game), which comes out to 5.3 points per game off turnovers.

Jumping Out Early

The 'Cats have outscored opponents by a combined score of 64-18 in the first and third quarters.  They haven't fared so well, though, in the second and fourth quarters, outscoring opponents just 56-44 (opponents have outscored NU 25-23 in the fourth).

NU Likes 30

The 'Cats' offense has scored exactly 30 points in two straight games (and 37 the game before that) and has averaged exactly 30.0 points per game this season.  The last time that NU scored 30 or more points in three straight games was during the 2005 season.

Final Thought

It was a great day for football weather-wise and a nice crowd turned out to see the 'Cats put up an imperfect but winning effort to close out the non-conference schedule.  With both Minnesota and Purdue (NU's next two opponents) falling to MAC opponents today, Northwestern's path to bowl eligibility looks very attainable.  But with many miscues to correct, the 'Cats know that they will have tough sledding in each remaining game with 8 Big Ten matchups coming up, so expect Coach Fitz to focus on these details as NU prepares for their first ever trip to TCF Bank Stadium to face Minnesota next week.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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