Post-Game Analysis: Boston College
by Jonathan Hodges

Despite the fact that Heisman Candidate QB Dan Persa did not suit up for action, the Northwestern Wildcats (1-0, 0-0) came out of Chestnut Hill with a significant 24-17 win over the Boston College Eagles (0-0) to keep Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald undefeated in season openers (6-0). Although there were certainly lapses on both sides of the ball, the 'Cats took care of business for the most part, holding BC to a respectable 3.5 yards per carry on the ground while the offense, led by Kain Colter, piled up 424 total yards and led NU to a big road win.

It was certainly a big test for NU, in fact it was easily the 'Cats' toughest season opener in the Fitz era, and Northwestern passed that test in almost all areas, even without their star player. Although many doubted he would play in the week leading up to the game, 'Cats fans, including myself, held out hope that Persa would trot out onto the field and get his first game action since going down with the infamous injury to his Achilles tendon. When it was announced just about 90 minutes before kickoff that he would not even dress for the game, it was a bit concerning for NU, although Colter had been practicing with the first team for the better part of nine months and had played a large part in NU putting up 38 points in its bowl game on January 1.

After a relatively large buildup for this game, kickoff of the 2011 season finally came and Northwestern started things off the way that they've been doing things for almost 20 years now: a tight game that they managed to win with a last-gasp defensive effort to close things off.

First Half Summary

On the first play from scrimmage, the Northwestern defense looked like the same unit that took the field for those final three contests in the 2010 season, allowing BC's backup RB Andre Williams rip off a 69 yard run to set up first and goal for the Eagles with many fans yet to find their seats. Fortunately, NU turned things around rather quickly by holding BC out of the end zone and then going on from there by allowing just 35 net rushing yards for the remainder of the game. In fact, removing that first run, Boston College averaged a measly 1.2 yards per carry; that alone shows that the NU D certainly turned a big corner following the end of last season.

The 'Cats then came out and seemingly forced the ball down BC's throat with plenty of option runs and scrambles by Colter with some relatively safe throws to the outside mixed in to steadily drive down the field and tie the game on a 43 yard Jeff Budzien field goal (on the first collegiate FG attempt from the sophomore). On the very next drive, NU put together another methodical 12-play drive that ended with Colter failing to convert a fourth and short at the BC 10 yard line after he fumbled the snap from under center (note that NU had a TD called back thanks to holding by a wide receiver right near the goal line on a prior play in that set of downs). Based on that play call, it was clear that Fitz was going to go for broke, even with a young signal-caller in the game, and although NU failed to convert in this instance it definitely helped put NU in the right mindset.

Of course this just wouldn't be a Northwestern game if there wasn't drama, and that would come on the ensuing series of plays. BC drove down the field thanks to some key throws from BC true sophoore QB Chase Rettig, although their drive ended with Jordan Mabin's interception at the NU 17, his second INT in as many games. But Colter made his biggest mistake of the day on NU's ensuing short drive as a miscommunication on third down had him throwing the ball to an area of the field without any receivers but with BC star LB Luke Kuechly, who promptly intercepted the ball and returned it to inside the NU five yard line. BC wouldn't squander this opportunity and drove it in with a run from RB Andre Williams to take a 10-3 lead.

After trading punts, the NU offense would finally put it together with another methodical 10-play drive that featured five first downs and was capped off a shifty TD run from Colter, who evaded Kuechly on his way to paydirt. That tied up the game just seconds before halftime, and with BC kneeling to end the half, the 'Cats effectively swung the momentum in their favor as they would be receiving the second half kickoff and had just tied the game.

Second Half Summary

The second half started much the way that the first ended: with a 10-play 80-yard drive by the Wildcats that was finished off with a Mike Trumpy five yard scamper. This immediately gave NU a one touchdown lead and even more confidence in their young QB along with the running game, which was well on the way to racking up an impressive 227 yards on the ground: 2.7 times the average that BC yielded one season ago. And this was of course from an NU offense that wasn't all that impressive running the ball a year ago, with most observers dismissing any possibility of the 'Cats being able to run the ball effectively against BC.

The teams would go on to trade a handful of punts before the fourth quarter rolled around and NU put together yet another long drive, this one consisting of 11 plays and 77 yards and topped off with an Adonis Smith rushing TD (making up for his run earlier that was called back due to penalty). This drive featured a nice 27 yard pass from Colter to true freshman WR Christian Jones, who had a nice grab to mark down as his first collegiate reception. Budzien finished it off with a successful XP, and he finished perfect on his kicks (3-of-3 on XPs and 1-of-1 on FGs), allowing NU to put a fair amount of confidence behind their new placekicker.

But, despite holding a 24-10 advantage with just over nine minutes to play, Northwestern knew that this one was not over (even with a fair amount of Boston College fans deciding to hit the exits early). The Eagles substantiated that by driving in for a score in just over three minutes thanks to a couple of rather long third down conversions by BC (who ended up going 8-of-17 on the day for third down conversions) and another rushing TD from Williams. That brought NU's lead to just seven with plenty of time left on the clock.

NU went three-and-out (without even trying to run much time off the clock), and gave BC a great chance to drive and tie the game, which they promptly blew thanks to four consecutive incompletions, with the 'Cats taking over on downs and holding a chance to close out the game right there if they could reach the first down line. NU understandably kept the ball on the ground and drove to third and three before Trumpy dove for the first down, lost the ball, but ultimately recovered one yard short of the first down. The 'Cats were at the BC 33 yard line and Fitz faced his first huge decision of the season: go for a long 50 yard FG to potentially seal the game (but risk yielding good field position on a potential miss by his young kicker or another costly error), punt to try and get BC even deeper (although a touchback would be likely and would yield just 13 yards of field position), or go for the first down to keep the ball and allow the 'Cats to run out the clock.

Wisely, Fitz decided on the third option and lined up to go for it; unfortunately, the play call wasn't ideal, with Colter lining up in a full shotgun and Trumpy aligned beside him; BC sent just about everyone up the middle and Colter seemingly ran directly into that wall of humanity, coming up four yards short as he was met in the backfield. The Eagles would take over in full desperation mode and that would see them overcome an intentional ground penalty (after which the clock did not restart for some reason) and pick up three first downs on long throws from Rettig as he led them to the NU 19 yard line for what looked like a few attempts at reaching the end zone.

But then the first rule change of the season came into play, fortunately for the 'Cats. With the clock running, BC committed a false start penalty, which pushed them back five yards. But, more significantly, Fitz opted to take a 10 second runoff as well: as the offseason rule change allows the opposing team to elect whether or not to take a 10 second clock runoff inside of one minute remaining in the half. This depleted the clock to just four seconds, setting up what would be the game's final play. Rettig had taken a number of hits through the game, and on this play with him rolling out to his right, he would suffer the final big hit as Vince Browne successfully chased him down from behind to put an emphatic end to the game and close out the big win for the Wildcats.

Player of the Game

Northwestern QB Kain Colter (17-of-24 passing for 197 yards, 1 INT; 21 rushes for 78 yards and 1 TD after removing sacks) Persa was out and everything fell onto the shoulders of Colter who had to lead NU into a hostile BCS conference opponent's stadium and execute the game plan while trying to avoid costly mistakes. And, he essentially did just that, completing an impressive 70.8% of his passes and piling up 268 yards of total offense including some impressive runs and a TD on the ground. Although he had one costly mistake (the interception), he did a great job executing the game plan and making things happen both through the air and on the ground, effectively showing that he's not just a one-trick pony. Although other NU players certainly contributed, Colter's ability to move the offense was the primary reason that NU came out of Boston with a win.

What Happened

"2. Persa held out... The Wildcats will most definitely want to utilize Colter's speed, so expect to see plenty of designed QB runs and options called.

Indeed, Persa was held out, as detailed under one of my Northwestern offensive scenarios in the game preview, and NU did certainly utilize Colter's abilities on the ground early and often, riding him to the tune of 21 carries. Often, he looked like a quicker version of Persa out there, dropping back and quickly deciding to take off and scamper for a run: he picked up four first downs and scored a TD with his feet. And the option game certainly was a boon to the 'Cats overall rushing game, which piled up yards on a vaunted run defense.

"Colter's recovery coupled with almost a full calendar year of practicing as a primary QB will likely give him much more confidence throwing the football (and will also give the coaching staff confidence in calling passing plays)"

Indeed this was the case, with Colter throwing 24 times (three more than Persa's full-time starting debut last year against Vanderbilt in which he threw the ball 21 times) and completing over 70% of his passes. Yes, he's still yet to find the end zone through the air, but he showed that he is more than a competent passer as he found the open man throughout the game and used those plays to extend drives and move NU down the field (he threw for nine first downs, including the impressive aforementioned 27 yard toss to Christian Jones). This film will certainly give future opponents something to ponder as they must prepare for both his running and passing abilities.

"The key to the NU defense is the play of the interior line"

The NU DTs, even without veteran Brian Arnfelt at all and with senior Jack DiNardo experiencing an injury that had him out for much of the game, did a great job at stuffing the middle and were a big reason that NU yielded under four yards per carry on the ground. Although they didn't put up huge stats, they did allow the second level linebackers to get to the ball and also held the middle of the field while the 'Cats racked up three sacks (and what would have been a fourth on the final play of the game but Browne tackled Rettig at the line of scrimmage). Niko Mafuli was out there and active for the majority of the game, and younger guys Will Hampton and Chance Carter also garnered plenty of playing time.

"This will be a close game, and Northwestern's experience and playmakers will pay off as they use a handful of big plays to pull off a big road win to kick off the 2011 season.

How's that for a close game? And, NU's experience did indeed pay off in some key areas, with Jordan Mabin coming up big a couple of times (with his INT, a pass break up near the goal line, and the TD saving tackle on the first play from scrimmage), Brian Peters adding some big plays of his own (two pass break ups and a sack), and Jeremy Ebert leading NU with four receptions and 54 receiving yards. Although some of the younger players were very much involved in the game, those seniors peppered throughout the lineup helped keep the 'Cats composed and ready to win yet another nail-biter.

"Northwestern 24, Boston College 20

If BC's usually reliable kicker had only made one of the two field goals that he missed, I would have nailed the final score. This game certainly looked like a lower scoring game, and that it ended up being. Interestingly, special teams did end up being a huge factor as those two missed BC FGs forced them to go for the end zone late in the game instead of being able to kick a go-ahead score. Also, as noted in the next section, the NU kicking game was very solid and helped the 'Cats win the field position battle for much of the day.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

S Brian Peters (5 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 2 PBUs) Peters was his usual self, all over the field making plays, both in the defensive backfield (the aforementioned two pass break ups) and behind the line of scrimmage (1.5 tackles for loss). Thankfully, he didn't have to lead the way in tackles, with two LBs coming out ahead of him in this game.

Kickers Jeff Budzien nailed all of his kicks in his debut as the starter, Steve Flaherty did well on kickoffs, generating two touchbacks (note that wind was a factor on kickoffs although it didn't seem like it should be at field level), and Brandon Williams did a nice job by averaging 45.0 yards per punt. Northwestern got a decided advantage with its special teams (BC missed two field goals and often had to kick short in order to avoid Venric Mark on punt returns), and a lot of credit must go to the NU kicking squad.

DE Tyler Scott (4 tackles, 1 sack) It doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but Scott was all over the field and was routinely chasing down Rettig and often got hits on the BC QB just after he released the ball. He looks like a playmaker and should be a nice complement to Browne as the season progresses.

RB Committee (combined 30 carries for 152 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 2 TDs) Mike Trumpy, Adonis Smith, Jacob Schmidt, and true freshman Treyvon Green all contributed to the NU running back by committee crew and they all did a solid job. Trumpy led the way with 85 yards and a TD; Smith added 53 yards and a score; Schmidt ran for 11 yards; and Green saw his first collegiate action with a carry for three. Overall, they showed their depth and versatility as they helped wear down the BC defense and contribute to NU's most impressive effort on the ground in the post-Tyrell Sutton era.

What to Work on

Pass Defense

NU was clearly loaded up against the run, so that may explain some of the issues against the pass, but the fact is still that NU gave up 375 yards through the air, which allowed BC to climb back in the game and have a shot to tie at the end of the fourth quarter. NU did have some bright spots against the pass (four pass break ups, an interception, three sacks, and allowed a completion rate of just 54.5%), but allowing that many yards through the air won't be acceptable as the season progresses. 6'6" WR Ifeanyi Momah abused NU CBs, particularly first time starter Jeravin Matthews, to the tune of 157 yards (although after the game it was announced that he would miss the remainder of the year with a torn ACL). Rettig picked on Matthews almost all day as he looked lost at times in his first start at CB (he previously played on special teams and in a limited role on offense early in his career). It will be interesting if the coaching staff will focus on trying to get Matthews up to par or if they'll try out Demetrius Dugar or Ricky Weina against the next two opponents (Eastern Illinois and Army, two unlikely to strike fear via their passing game). But, the 'Cats need to be more consistent against the pass both up front with the DL and in the backfield with cornerbacks.

Finishing Strong

In typical NU style, the 'Cats almost collapsed late even though they sported a 14 point lead over midway through the fourth quarter. While it was understandable that they went with conservative offensive play calling given that the 'Cats had a relatively inexperienced signal caller at the helm, it was still disconcerting that NU couldn't get any points on a drive to the BC 10 yard line early in the game and couldn't pick up a first down with just one yard to go late in the fourth to seal the game. On the first play, Colter mishandled the snap which almost certainly prevented the 'Cats from picking up the first down. And near the end of the game, the play call was a head-scratcher, with Colter in a full shotgun and Trumpy aligned directly alongside him; that put the ball six yards behind the line to gain after the snap, and the play call was a run up the gut by Colter instead of something to the outside where NU had more success on the day.

Those are just two examples from the offense, though, and the defense certainly contributed as well, allowing that plethora of passing yards which kept BC in the game until the end. If NU would have been able to get to the passer or deflect/intercept a few more passes, the game would have been over much sooner and NU fans could have laid off the blood pressure medication for at least one game this season.

Random Observations


BC had 37,561 in attendance for their season lidlifter, just a little over NU's season average from 2010 (36,449), and the crowd definitely got a significant boost from the Northwestern contingent, which was present in significant numbers in both end zones and also scattered throughout the crowd. This was noted in numerous postgame writeups as NU once again showed that its fans travel well even if home attendance lagged during the 2000s.

NU Receivers out of the Backfield

NU RB Adonis Smith caught his third career pass, and, interestingly, all have gone for a loss (-1, -1, and -3 yards); contrast that with Jacob Schmidt, who has been a very reliable receiving option at RB, as he has 29 career receptions for 274 yards. Schmidt's one reception for 13 yards against BC helped convert a third and long on Saturday.

NU Rushing Offense

With Colter as NU's primary QB (in the TicketCity Bowl and this game), NU has averaged 228 yards per game on the ground (229 vs. Texas Tech and 227 against BC). The last time that NU exceeded 220 net yards on the ground was the start of the 2009 season against FCS Towson.

Fitz's Openers

The win boosted Fitz's record in season openers to 6-0, including 3 wins on the road and 3 wins against BCS conference teams. He will get a chance to add to all of those numbers over the next two seasons as the 'Cats open the 2012 season at Syracuse and 2013 at California.

Final Thought

Although there were certainly drawbacks, NU showed a lot of good things in a solid road win against a good football team on Saturday as they showed that they could not only run but also stop the run: two things that have been missing in long stretches over the prior two seasons. And, the 'Cats showed that they can win without Persa and that Colter has a pretty good arm to boot. And thankfully the schedule lets up a bit over the next two weeks as NU will head home to face their annual FCS opponent and then head to face a tricky Army team that the 'Cats should still be able to handle (and they are followed by a bye week).

This should give Northwestern a great opportunity to prepare for a tough Big Ten slate that awaits starting October 1. But, for now, NU can celebrate a good road win, heal up, and prepare for the next game. This will also likely be a chance to see a lot of younger players in action in order to solidify that depth that will almost certainly be called upon as the season progresses.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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