Post-Game Analysis: Eastern Illinois
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (2-0) took care of business on Saturday afternoon as they dispatched the Eastern Illinois Panthers (1-1) by a final score of 42-21 in the 2011 home opener for the 'Cats. Dan Persa seemingly took one more step towards full health as he dressed in full pads for the game, but was reportedly not cleared to play but hopes to be ready very soon (if not for next week's game at Army, then almost certainly for the Big Ten opener against Illinois on October 1). But, on this day it was Kain Colter who once again stole the show as he was effective both on the ground (15 carries for 109 yards and 3 TDs) and through the air (10-of-13 for 104 yards).

Overall, the 'Cats had their way on the ground as they pounded the ball 67 times for 320 net rushing yards (almost as many as EIU's total yardage output on the day, 341) and 5 rushing TDs. Third string QB Trevor Siemian saw his first collegiate action as he threw NU's first TD pass of the year to backup RB Tyris Jones, and apparent fourth stringer Evan Watkins even got into the game. All in all, Northwestern went deep on the bench, playing 69 players (according to the box score) as they got many different players some live game action.

Yes, there were some things to clean up, particularly on defense that gave up chunks of yards, including two very long plays that led to scores, but if the running game continues to be as effective as it was today, Northwestern will be in great shape as the season progresses, particularly if Persa returns and he provides the expected shot in the arm to the passing game. Now, NU will begin to prepare for Army's unique strategies both on offense and defense.

First Half Summary

NU got things started off right early as a Bryce McNaul interception on EIU's opening drive gave the 'Cats the ball with momentum early, and they would capitalize as Colter set things up with a shifty 25 yard scamper and would later punch it in himself. NU would recover a Panthers fumble (on fourth down) on the ensuing drive, and would then pound it down the field again and finished that off with a Jacob Schmidt TD rumble, his first time hitting paydirt after going down with an injury on a play in which he fumbled against Michigan State midway through last season.

Things started going south for NU midway through the second quarter, though, as Jeff Budzien missed his first collegiate kick (a 45 yard attempt to try and top off a 13 play drive), and EIU took advantage quickly as QB Jimmy Garoppolo had plenty of time in the pocket to find a WR break out of coverage and end up wide open, and Garoppolo easily hit him in stride as he streaked in for the score to cut NU's lead to 14-7. Fortunately, NU wouldn't let EIU get any closer as the 'Cats methodically marched down the field once again with Colter adding another score. And, just before halftime, NU would do it again with true freshman Treyvon Green getting in on the act with his first TD as a Wildcat, to give the 'Cats a comfortable 28-7 halftime edge.

Second Half Summary

Northwestern started off the second half much the way they did a week ago, with a 10+ play drive capped with a touchdown, this time Colter's third touchdown of the game, during which he appeared to get banged up a bit and almost lost the ball, but he held on and got in to put NU up by four touchdowns. At that point, Fitz began to clear the bench to get his younger players some valuable time on the field, and that included the aforementioned Trevor Siemian on the next NU drive. Although NU didn't score, they continued their seemingly unstoppable running attack as they picked up two first downs and drove into Panther territory.

On the ensuing drive, though, the 'Cats began making mental errors, including two drive-extending pass interference penalties that allowed EIU to score and cut the lead to 21, forcing Fitz to put some of the starters, including Colter, back in the game, It was good to see that Kain was still in good health, and he added to his total yards for the day as he marched NU down the field and later ceded the way for Siemian to throw his touchdown, which was the 'Cats' final score of the game. After a clock-eating NU drive with Watkins that ended on downs, EIU would get to add one more score on NU's defensive third stringers thanks to one long 76 yard run yielded on the first play of said drive. That would lead to the final 42-21 score.

Player of the Game

Northwestern QB Kain Colter (10-of-13 passing for 104 yards; 14 rushes for 119 yards and 3 TDs after removing sacks) It would be difficult to give this honor to anyone else as today was the Kain Colter show as he helped Northwestern rack up the yards and touchdowns all day long. He looked comfortable running the offense, and this certainly builds some valuable experience for this young but explosive player moving forward in his career.

What Happened

"Expect the 'Cats to use its suddenly revitalized ground game early and often against the Panthers, who the NU OL should be able to wear down and/or push around"

Northwestern did just that to the tune of 320 net rushing yards on a whopping 67 carries, the most carries since NU ran all over Illinois in a 2005 win.

"Don't expect to see anything too exotic out of the NU D, but one should expect the line to make some noise in the pass rush department."

The NU defense did reasonably well for most of the day, allowing scores only after blatant mistakes (a couple of very long plays from blown coverage and one score after a couple of costly penalties). But, the pass rush was very much absent as NU generated only two sacks against a physically undermanned line. Note that the 'Cats would have allowed just 2.2 yards per carry on the ground if the third string didn't yield that 76 long run on the last drive of the game.

[Attendance vs. FCS] "Thankfully, things trended up last year with a mark of 25,471 against Illinois State, and hopefully the trend will continue"

And the trend upwards continued, with an attendance mark of 28,042, the highest of any NU game against an FCS team since 2006, and actually the highest Northwestern home opener attendance since the 2001 season kicked off against Michigan State (after the Navy game was cancelled in the aftermath of 9/11).

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

LB Bryce McNaul (7 tackles, 1 interception) McNaul got things started right for the 'Cats as he grabbed an interception to give NU an almost immediate edge in the game, and he would also go on to lead Northwestern in tackles for the game. Hopefully the senior can continue to lead by example in this fashion.

Offensive Line: Once again, the line did it's job well, paving the way for NU to run for more than 300 yards and five scores on the ground, even when Eastern Illinois knew what was coming all day long.

RB Stable: Northwestern seems content to use a rotation of running backs, and that continues to work well as NU had three running backs run for over 50 yards in addition to Colter, who topped 100 himself. This game featured Adonis Smith (who left with an ankle injury in the second half), the aforementioned Treyvon Green, and Jacob Schmidt. With Mike Trumpy hopefully returning from his concussion shortly, the Wildcats have some nice options in the running game that will hopefully continue to carry the 'Cats to victory.

What to Work on

Mental Fortitude: As mentioned earlier, NU gave up a long 72 yards pass TD where Brian Peters and Ibraheim Campbell bit on the run and let a WR slip behind them and get wide open to catch the ball for a score. Late in the game, the third string defense gave up a 76 yard run that set up an EIU score. And the Panthers' other touchdown was set up with a couple of costly penalties. Fitz will most certainly concentrate on eliminating these errors as the season progresses since other teams will be in a much better position to make the Wildcats pay for such mistakes.

Pass Rush: After a great first game, Tyler Scott was relatively quiet in this game, and although Vince Browne had one sack, one would expect him to go wild against an FCS team. Overall, NU gave the opposing quarterback way too much time in the pocket to find open receivers, and that showed as EIU was able to generate 341 total yards on the day. Northwestern must do a better job of getting to the quarterback, and the inability to do that against lesser competition does not bode well for NU. Hopefully the 'Cats have more up their collective sleeve schematically for future games.

Special Teams: A week after an almost flawless game in the third phase, Northwestern missed a kick and had a badly shanked punt. It certainly didn't cost NU much in this game, but as demonstrated in week one by Boston College, such mistakes can be costly in a close game. Fortunately, Venric Mark was back to his old tricks in the return game as he had both a 49 and 63 yard return off of kickoffs.

Random Observations

Rushing Power

NU topped 300 yards on the ground for the first time since 2005 (against Illinois), and the 'Cats exceeded 200 yards rushing for the three straight games for the first time since the 2000 Big Ten Co-Championship season. Northwestern is averaging 4.8 yards per carry so far this season (after removing sacks).

Coach Fitz Climbs All-Time Win List

Coach Fitzgerald is now tied for third on the Northwestern head coach all time win list (with Dick Hanley and Ara Parseghian) and is just one win shy of Randy Walker, who currently sits in second place on the list. Fitz is currently 13 wins from first place (Pappy Waldorf) at 36.

Turnovers and Conversions

After tying the turnover battle in week one, NU won it 2-0 this week. The 'Cats also did much better on third downs on both sides of the ball, converting 61.5% of their third downs while allowing EIU to convert just 40% of theirs. After doing well on conversions last season, the 'Cats are certainly looking to do the same in 2011, particularly with an offense that relies upon long, sustained drives (NU has seven drives of 10 or more plays through two games this season).

Final Thought

Northwestern did what it wanted to do against an FCS opponent: play vanilla football, run the ball a lot, play a lot of guys, and win comfortably. This game continued to build confidence in NU's run game and add experience for a lot of the younger players on the field, which will both hopefully pay dividends down the road in 2011.

Once again, now it's time to shift the focus to a tricky Army squad that will certainly be a test for the NU run defense. The Wildcats will have the physical advantage in this game, but NU must avoid costly mental mistakes and stay disciplined against a well-conditioned squad that will test the 'Cats for 60 minutes.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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