Post-Game Analysis: Army
by Jonathan Hodges

Ugh. That just about sums up the Northwestern Wildcats' (2-1, 0-0) loss at Army (1-2), by a final score of 14-21, last Saturday as the Black Knights ran a seminar on the triple option offense while the 'Cats' offense barely got off the bus. NU QB Kain Colter was replaced late in the game by Trevor Siemian, who seemed to provide a spark with some quick completions and one that allowed WR Jeremy Ebert to run 62 yards to tie the score midway through the fourth quarter, but NU couldn't respond to Army's final touchdown run as Siemian's final pass of the day fell short of Ebert on fourth down and just over a minute to go.

Overall it was an ugly and disheartening day for Northwestern fans who traveled from far and wide to show up in significant numbers (Lake The Posts reports that the Army ticket office estimated the NU crowd at about 10,000) as the favored Wildcats once again failed to perform against lesser competition and now will be heading into Big Ten play with much lower expectations. This was NU's first loss to a non-BCS conference school in almost exactly five years (the last loss came on September 22, 2006 at Nevada) while Army got just their fifth win against a BCS-conference team since 1996 (in 33 tries).

The Wildcats looked inept for most of the game in all three phases: the offense sputtered and barely managed to squeak out two touchdowns (mostly thanks to the heroics of Ebert), the defense allowed Army to gain 381 yards on the ground (5.1 yards per carry) while converting almost half of their third downs and all three of their fourth down tries, and the special teams continued their downward trend from one week ago by missing a much-needed field goal and shanking a number of punts (with two going for under 25 yards).

Much credit must be given to Army, who came out and played a very disciplined game and just plain executed their unique strategy on both offense and defense. Their offense just plain ate up clock (they finished with a whopping 40:19 time of possession) while the defense did a solid job of stopping NU's running game which clearly put Colter off balance as he was unable to successfully counter-attack through the air (the 'Cats ran the ball just 27 times after averaging 60.5 attempts per game through the first two weeks). The Black Knights stuck with their game plan, though, and eventually left the Wildcats searching for answers as they celebrated victory with their fellow cadets.

There's much to discuss on this game below, but the take home message is that Northwestern has a long way to go between now and October 1 when they travel to face a now-ranked Illinois squad to kick off Big Ten play if they want to be a factor in the Legends Division this year. No, the 'Cats won't face another triple option team for some time and, yes, they will get Dan Persa back at some point (he was cleared to play on Saturday but Fitz would only use him in case of multiple injuries), but this loss pointed out some of the large deficiencies in this squad that had much higher expectations after the first two weeks of the year.

First Half Summary

Things didn't start off too badly for the Wildcats as they quickly drove into Army territory after receiving the opening kickoff, but after the drive stalled inside their opponent's 40 yard line, things started to go south quickly. Fitz made his first questionable call of the day, opting to punt from Army's 36 on fourth and four in a situation where going for the first down was most certainly a viable option. Brandon Williams subsequently shanked the ensuing punt, with Army getting the ball on the 19, and that's where they went to work. Despite knowing exactly what they would see and preparing for much of the offseason, the NU defense seemed helpless at times as Army drove down the field on 18 plays that included three third down conversions and a fourth down conversion to boot (on fourth and five from the NU 38). They capped the drive with a 17 yard scoring run from QB Trent Steelman who seems to have recovered nicely from the shoulder injury sustained a week ago as he led Army in rushing yards and accounted for all three of their TDs.

NU then began to fizzle on offense as they went three-and-out, with NU RT Patrick Ward committing a costly false start to earn a penalty as his play certainly brings up the question about his starting status moving forward. NU was forced to punt again, which is essentially the worst thing that can happen against Army's time-sucking triple option offense when they hold the lead. And, although the Knights didn't score, they did deflate the football with a 10 play drive that went just over five minutes (and included another converted fourth down); they missed their field goal try, but they were continuing the tone they set earlier: they would control the tempo of the game (and as long as they held the lead that would be very bad news to NU). To this point, Army had run 28 plays to only 10 for the 'Cats, and it was already well into the second quarter.

NU took over and after Colter seemed to get things going with a shifty 25 yard run, things stalled once again as nothing was doing in the traditional ground game and Colter couldn't move the chains through the air. Another drive and another punt for NU, this time a touchback that once again didn't yield good field position for the sake of the NU defense. Thankfully for Northwestern, though, Army decided to get cute and tried to throw the ball on three consecutive downs, almost unheard of for the team (especially when clutching the lead): all three were incompletions and NU somehow got the ball back after just 30 seconds.

And, finally, with Mike Trumpy grounding out 28 yards on the ground and the offense finally starting to click, the Wildcats moved down the field (including converting a fourth down of their own) and Colter passed for his first collegiate TD with a 14 yard toss that Ebert grabbed at the very back of the end zone to tie the game up. Army would drive down to the NU 40 and ground almost all of the time off the clock (just over one minute remaining) but they were forced to punt and NU would get the ball back one more time before the half. The 'Cats definitely took advantage, with Colter carving up the Army pass defense that included a nice 19 yard grab by the young Christian Jones that put NU inside the Army 10 yard line with just five seconds left to allow Northwestern to try for a short field goal to hopefully take a halftime lead, despite being outplayed for much of the half.

Unfortunately the FG attempt would be a fitting omen as NU hurried to snap the ball despite taking a timeout just before the play, and Jeff Budzien missed his second consecutive field goal as it went slicing to the right, leaving the teams tied going into halftime. While Army was certainly doing what they do on offense and were succeeding in trying to keep time of possession in their favor to shorten the game (they had the ball for almost 19 of the first 30 minutes), Northwestern was finally getting its offense going and had stopped Army on three straight drives. The defense looked to be gaining confidence while the offense was gaining momentum, and while special teams errors had hurt the 'Cats, it hadn't sunk them.

Second Half Summary

Unfortunately, that momentum went right out the window after halftime as Army came out and did the same thing that they did on their first drive of the day: drove right down the field for a touchdown. While NU had done a nice job of at least containing the offense and preventing any big runs, things began to fall apart as the first play from scrimmage was a 33 yard run from Raymond Maples that was the start of that momentum shift. Steelman once again hit paydirt and the 'Cats found themselves behind again, once again a bad position to be in against the Army offense.

Now came the real turning point in the game. While the NU offense seemed to be picking up steam at the end of the first half, the third quarter proved to be Kain Colter's undoing as the 'Cats picked up just one first down in four possessions during the quarter with Colter went 3-of-7 passing (for just 21 yards), was sacked twice, and NU as a team rushed for just one net yard in those drives. Army was loading up to stop the run and force Colter to throw, and Kain was just unable to move the offense without relying on the ground game. While the Northwestern defense was able to keep the game in reach by forcing and recovering a fumble and making Army punt two more times, the Wildcat offense's woes were putting NU in prime position for an upset that would indeed come.

Northwestern wouldn't have to wait much longer for another Army time consuming drive as they took over just before the fourth quarter and subsequently kept the ball for over half of the quarter. The NU defense just couldn't get off the field but, this time, thankfully held Army out of the end zone and forced another field goal try, this time a short miss that somehow kept the 'Cats in this game, down a touchdown with just under seven minutes to play.

Then came one of the only cheer-worthy moments for the Wildcats as redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian came in at QB for the second straight week to hopefully re-invigorate the offense. And that he did, completing three straight passes, the third of which Ebert took in the middle of the field, dodged multiple defenders, and found a seam along the far sideline as he took off for a 62 yard game-tying TD. Suddenly, NU had life, and all they needed was one more stop and it looked like the 'Cats could sneak out of West Point with a win despite playing poorly on both sides of the ball for much of the game.

But, that stop would not come. Army would take the ensuing kickoff and march right down the field no thanks to three consecutive outside runs of 23, 17, and 17 yards to wear down a defense that was visibly gassed after being on the field for over 11 minutes of the fourth quarter to that point. The Black Knights got the ball down inside the NU 10 and forced the 'Cats to take their remaining timeouts to try and get the ball back once more. Army would punch it in at the goal line with what looked like a rather easy QB sneak, and NU would somehow have to mount a miraculous comeback with just under three minutes left after going down 14-21.

NU would pick up one first down thanks to a screen pass that Ebert took 18 yards, but on the ensuing down Siemian mishandled the low shotgun snap and took a sack, which would prove to be costly on the clock while also putting NU behind the chains. He would complete his next pass to set up third and four, and NU decided to get to the line quickly and try a quick run by Jacob Schmidt, who came just one yard short, setting up the decisive fourth down play at the Army 33. NU once again hurried to get a quick play off as the game clock was ticking down, but the play just wasn't there as Siemian's pass was rushed and not really close to Ebert as he rolled to his right.

Despite hanging on for virtually the entire game despite poor play in all phases, the Wildcats finally fell as the pass hit the ground, allowing Army to come out and set up in victory formation and celebrate a win over a Big Ten team. The team would stay to honor the cadets during their singing of their alma mater, but then NU would be forced to contemplate what just happened on their long journey home and how they would proceed from this loss.

Player of the Game

Army QB Trent Steelman (1-of-7 passing for 6 yards; 28 rushes for 108 yards and 3 TDs, 1 fumble lost) After coming out of last week's game with a shoulder injury and also being a part of the rushing attack that fumbled eight times in that game, Steelman came back and did an excellent job running Army's option attack against NU. The 'Cats knew what was coming but still couldn't stop it as Steelman routinely made the right reads, and when keeping the ball himself seemed to always generate two or three extra yards after he should have come down. Those extra yards certainly helped Army extend drives and bleed valuable time from the clock as the Black Knights ended the game with 25 more plays than the 'Cats (82 to 57), which was a huge factor in propelling Army to a huge upset win.

What Happened

"If NU doesn't play disciplined team defense and/or gets behind early, this game could very well slip away."

And that's exactly what happened as NU got down very early on in the game and then again just after the half despite tying it in the second quarter. For the vast majority of the game, the Wildcats were struggling trying to come back while Army could leisurely run their offense and conveniently run time off the clock. NU was certainly not disciplined in any aspect of the game: in addition to 'Cats' aforementioned troubles in all three phases, NU also accumulated seven penalties for 60 yards (compared to just two for 10 for Army). This was the perfect recipe for Northwestern's downfall, as I mentioned in this week's preview.

"With Army likely loading the box to try and slow down the NU running attack, Colter may very well be forced to use his arm."

That certainly happened (as mentioned earlier, NU was able to run the ball under half the number of times the did on average through the first two weeks) and, unfortunately, Colter just couldn't make it happen through the air, ending 12-of-23 passing for just 89 yards and giving way to Siemian, who would finish the game. This was not a surprise, but the 'Cats took much too long to respond by shifting the game plan and/or personnel to take advantage of things through the air, leaving the redshirt freshman Siemian, playing during his first non-garbage time in college, with everything on his shoulders at the end. NU's offense worked, but only at times and well short of the amount it would have taken to win this game.

"this could really turn out to be a day featuring long, plodding drives and the game decided on who is actually able to get a stop on a key third down."

It was Army's defense that won this battle, despite allowing a conversion rate of over 60% coming into this game. The Wildcats could only muster a conversion rate of 25% on third down. The NU defense didn't do horribly against a tough Army team that loves to extend drives with third down conversions (allowing a 43.8% rate on 16 chances), they certainly failed on fourth down where the 'Cats allowed the Black Knights to convert all three of their chances. These relative rates allowed Army to run their attack at their tempo, while NU almost never got their offense flowing and were forced into a really bad situation that eventually led to their downfall.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

WR Jeremy Ebert (6 catches for 108 yards and 2 TDs) Ebert was essentially the only bright spot for Northwestern on the day as his tough grab at the back of the end zone and long run after catch in the fourth quarter accounted for all of the 'Cats' scoring. It is pretty clear that one only needs to get him the football and he will then make things happen. NU fans know that he'll be an even more dangerous weapon when Dan Persa returns as Persa loves to feed him the ball. It certainly wasn't Ebert's fault that the 'Cats came up short here.

QB Trevor Siemian (5-of-7 for 105 yards and 1 TD) Siemian came into the game in a very difficult situation: with everything sitting on his shoulders and time ticking down in the fourth quarter, but he completed three straight passes on his first drive, and that immediately yielded results with Ebert scampering for a long TD off of that third pass. He also gave it his all on that final drive, with a low snap and some questionable play calling finally ending NU's chances. While it would have been great for him to lead NU to a win, he did an admirable job in a tough situation and will certainly be a factor at QB for Northwestern down the road.

What to Work on

Playing Down to Competition

This now marks the sixth straight season (all under Fitz) in which NU has lost to a significant underdog (2010 vs Purdue, 2009 at Syracuse, 2008 at Indiana, 2007 vs Duke, and 2006 vs New Hampshire). Since Fitz took over at Northwestern in 2006, the 'Cats have been favorites in 24 games (not counting FCS games, which typically had no line). The 'Cats have gone 17-7 in those games (0.708), but have covered the opening spread in just five of those games (20.8%). Compare that to games in which NU is the underdog (36 games during that span, again not counting FCS games), where the 'Cats have covered 61.1% of the time and have won outright 14 times (38.9%). The Wildcats have enough talent on their roster at this point to be able to cleanly handle opponents that they are favored to beat, but the stats (particularly the inability to cover the spread) show that this remains to be a problem.

For the longest time I have doubted the hypothesis that being the favorite somehow affects Northwestern's psychological mindset for a game, but after this most recent example it's pretty clear that something is going on in this team's collective mind. The Wildcats didn't just experience a few breakdowns; offense, defense, and special teams (all to be highlighted later in this section) looked completely outmatched at times, despite facing a team with a well-known and well-documented scheme (tricky, but still well-known) that they have been purposely preparing for. As a team, NU certainly has better athletes who are all around bigger and faster, but they sure didn't look like it on Saturday, and I must attribute at least some of that to their mindset.

As ESPN Big Ten Blogger Adam Rittenberg noted in his postgame comments, "these types of losses reinforce the perception that Northwestern can't get to the next level." If Fitz wants to not only continue leading Northwestern to bowl games but also to contend for the division title, the Wildcats must dispose of lesser teams and move on to put additional focus on the bigger opponents, and now the 'Cats are forced to expend a significant amount of effort on essentially all 12 opponents each season due to this issue.

The Offense

Most of the blame for this loss should fall on the shoulders of the offense. There were only three relatively successful drives in the game, and one of them ended with a missed field goal, and the two touchdowns were mostly thanks to the acrobatics and speed of Jeremy Ebert. Otherwise, the NU offense didn't do much of anything (generating just 309 yards of total offense, over 100 fewer than in either of their first two games) and their zero (0) net yards of total offense and three punts in the third quarter, when behind by a touchdown with the defense somehow holding back the Army attack, essentially did in the 'Cats.

Thankfully, a change is right around the corner with Dan Persa now cleared to play and likely becoming available for duty in NU's next game at Illinois. While there is still a question on how well he will be able to move, he is sure to throw the ball well, and that alone would have made a world of difference against Army. And, if NU is throwing the ball well, that would certainly help to keep defenses more honest and would open up some holes for Mike Trumpy and company. And if Persa is not ready to go the whole way, Siemian looked competent throwing the ball (in a high pressure situation nonetheless) and would likely be a viable option on some snaps.

The offensive line once again did a fairly good job, particularly against a team that constantly mixed up the look of its defensive front and the number of pass rushers. The one question mark that emerged from the game, though, is the fate of RT Patrick Ward, who had multiple penalties (false starts) and seems to routinely be the man being beat on the line. He is obviously a huge recruit, but it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff shifts some players around (Neal Deiters has spent some time at RT before but is now the backup RG) or go to his backup, Chuck Porcelli. Fitz has certainly used the depth chart as motivation, including moving Adonis Smith and Mike Trumpy behind Jacob Schmidt at RB this season.

The Defense

While the offense holds most of the blame, the defense is certainly complicit: Army had four 10+ play drives plus two more for nine plays each, and the defense's inability to get off the field led to the Black Knights holding the ball for over two thirds of the game and, therefore, NU being unable to mount a comeback. This was particularly galling on Army's three fourth down conversions as well as the two goal line plays where the defense just plain got pushed backwards by a physically smaller offensive front. All of this despite NU spending a large amount of time preparing for Army's unique triple option attack.

NU DC Mike Hankwitz had a special 3-4 formation that the 'Cats used for the game: Niko Mafuli at nose tackle to clog the middle (and prevent the FB dive), two defensive ends (usually Tyler Scott and Vince Browne) to force the ball further outside, and four LBs (Chi Chi Ariguzo and Ben Johnson shading to the outside of the formation with David Nwabuisi and Bryce McNaul in the middle to find the ballcarrier and make the tackle. The safeties would also be there for further outside or downfield support, while the cornerbacks would shadow the WRs just in case of a pass while coming in to make the tackle only when necessary.

While the D got pushed around at times, in other instances they seemed to gain confidence and found ways to stop the Army attack. The Black Knights did have four drives of four or fewer plays (minus end-of-half drives), including one in which Northwestern forced and recovered a fumble (in Army territory). Unfortunately, the 'Cats could only capitalize after one of those short drives (in the second quarter), and NU's own short drives eventually led to the defense taking the field again which certainly showed on Army's last two drives of substance (one ending in a missed short FG and the second ending in the game-winning TD). The D was getting worn down and 'Cats players had to be helped off the field with cramps multiple times.

The exemplification of the problems occurred when the Army ballcarriers, Steelman in particular, seemed to always get two or three additional yards even after the initial hit. The NU D either lacked confidence or was tired out (or both) and those certainly contributed to the 'Cats' inability to force the conclusion of Army drives, and that is something that must be addressed going forward. While NU won't be facing this same scheme for the remainder of the year, some of those key concepts (getting pressure on the line, bringing down the ballcarrier with confidence) will certainly be important going forward against some respectable ground attacks (starting in NU's next game against Illinois, since everyone remembers what happened at Wrigley Field last season).

Special Teams

After a subpar performance last week (outside of the return game), the trend continued this week with shanked punts, short kickoffs, and a missed gimme field goal. Although the special teams didn't cause the loss, they certainly didn't help anything by costing the 'Cats three points and constantly giving Army better field position. Jeff Budzien didn't respond well to his first miss last week (which was excused by Fitz given that it was into the wind and from a respectable distance of 45 yards) as he missed an under-30 yard attempt. While Fitz has publicly stated that he will stick with him for now, he knows that he must turn it around otherwise he will end up being pulled in favor of Steve Flaherty.

Speaking of Flaherty, his kickoffs didn't help NU's cause, with his three boots landing, on average, just outside of the 10 yard line (none were that close to landing in the end zone). The Wildcats covered those kicks well (Army averaged just 16.7 yards per return) and therefore kept the net returns in check, but this could prove costly down the road against faster return men. NU's third specialist, Brandon Williams, had one of the worst performances of his just-over one year career, with his first punt going for a paltry 17 yards, as he averaged just 38.4 yards per punt on the day (mostly thanks to his final punt, a rugby-style kick that bounced to 65 yards). He had one touchback and a couple of others that were way too short (including a 22-yarder). The coverage team didn't allow any return yards, but the 'Cats could have done a much better job of flipping the field if they got more consistency from the punter.

Hopefully this will be a lesson to the kickers and will yield better results down the line. The fact is that this is still a very young unit, and NU fans know their role will be highlighted in close games later this year, so hopefully they have learned from this experience. Fortunately one area that doesn't need much work is kickoff returns, where NU ranks 10th nationally thanks to Venric Mark who is averaging 28.9 yards per return and has shown the ability to take it to the house. NU fans will have to hold on and see how this relatively inexperienced unit progresses through this season.

Random Observations

Gameday Experience

The one overwhelmingly enjoyable aspect of the game was what happened outside of those mostly disheartening sixty minutes. The scenery was pristine and it was a great day to see the sites, tailgate, and enjoy the trip from the lot to the stadium. My seat was in the upper deck and it afforded some excellent views of the reservoir next to the stadium and the Hudson River beyond as well as much of the historic campus. The cadets were obviously the most respectful student body that I have personally encountered (nationally, I assume they will tie with the other service academies), and the other fans were extremely respectful (I never heard one negative comment directed towards me the entire day).

The game atmosphere was great, and the stadium itself was mostly full, most notably with a swarm of Northwestern fans (decked out in purple) in the south end zone. While the result of the game was somewhat depressing, the overall experience was still positive and it's a great place to go watch a college football game. (Just make sure one leaves ample time to travel, as the campus is certainly not designed to accommodate 38,000 fans, let alone allow them to get in and out quickly; but, the wait is worth it).

Confidence and Talent Level

I was one of many who became much too confident in the 'Cats after their first two weeks (which look much different now that Boston College has lost to UCF and, now, Duke) and essentially dismissed the chances of NU getting upset by the strategically tricky Army squad. One of the main reasons I believed this was the talent and depth of talent on Northwestern, which has been hyped as improved, even from the mid-2000's. But, I believe this game showed that the Wildcats aren't as far ahead as we were led to believe. While there were certainly other factors involved in the game (the aforementioned psychological aspect along with some of the tactical breakdowns), this showed that NU isn't far ahead of the lower FBS teams in terms of talent and they must still rely upon some of the key players along with some strategy in order to win in the Big Ten.

Lack of Turnovers

Northwestern has lost just one turnover this year (Colter's interception against BC) and since then hasn't turned it over at all, and have a +3 turnover margin on the year (+1 per game, ranking NU 17th nationally in turnover margin). Unfortunately, the 'Cats haven't capitalized against their FBS opponents, and those turnovers haven't come at key points in time. With Persa also great at protecting the football, hopefully NU can add a consistent passing game to the mix while also keeping turnovers low, which will certainly help things when conference play starts in under two weeks.

Final Thought

Yes, it was disappointing and likely one of the worst losses in the Fitz era, but there are still signs of hope (like Siemian's finish to the game, Ebert's electric plays, and Persa coming back), and Northwestern in the past has certainly shown the ability to rise from the ashes of a bad loss to upset some big names and even get to top tier bowl games.

Northwestern fans certainly know how to appreciate every victory thanks to games like this, as it prevents one from becoming complacent and allows 'Cats fans to savor the big victories that much more. It's a long season full of ups and downs, and there will certainly be some ups down the road to go along with this down. And, as everyone says, things start all over on October 1 when Big Ten play begins and every team in the conference starts at the same spot in the competition for those division titles.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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