Post-Game Analysis: Northwestern At Michigan State
by Jonathan Hodges
The Cardiac 'Cats returned to the field again today as Northwestern (3-3, 1-2)
concluded the first half of its 2007 season with a 48-41
overtime win over Michigan State (4-2, 0-2). The win puts the
Wildcats in a position to contend for a bowl berth in the second half of the
season and to make some noise again after falling flat against Duke and OSU and
coming up short against Michigan.
The story of the game was definitely
NU's 520 passing yards from the hands of QB CJ Bacher, who went 38-49 (78%) with
5 TDs and no turnovers on the day in the best ever single-game passing
performance from a Northwestern quarterback. What a difference a week makes -
after giving up 5 turnovers last week against Michigan, including 4 in NU's
final 4 drives of the games to watch the lead slip away - CJ led the Wildcats to
a wild victory in which Northwestern never trailed and NU made up for special
teams gaffes en route to the OT win. Of course a lot of credit must be given to
the offensive line who only gave up 1 sack for -2 yards - and that is against
what was the nation's #2 team in sacks beginning the game. CJ had all day to
throw, and throw he did - finding the open receiver early and often and
converting 13 of 19 3rd downs (68%). Also credit the receivers who had a
plethora of great snags (Thompson had a couple on the first drive, plus Lane
with 2 in the end zone) and tons of yards after the catch (Peterman, who had a
career day, Yarbrough, who came back from an injury last week nicely, and
Conteh, who showed versatility out of the backfield).
While it was great
to get such a big win - on the road at a Big Ten opponent to close out the first
half of the year - the NU defense and special teams left a lot to be desired.
In the kicking game, Villareal came into the game perfect on the year but missed
an extra point try early in the game and a potential game-winner FG in the
closing seconds. Also, a botched snap prevented Villareal from trying a FG to
take the lead late in the game - although Daley made a nice recovery that was
almost caught by Wootton. While it would have been nice to keep the perfect
streak alive, NU did come away with the win, and hopefully the special teams can
get the bugs out of their system going into the second half of the year.
Positive notes from special teams included a blocked punt AND a blocked extra
point by NU which both proved to be key in such a close game. Also, Demos went
to being great on punts with an average of 42.5 with 3 of 4 punts inside the 20
yard line - and 2 of 7 kickoffs going for touchbacks.
And the ugliest
part of the day was NU's defense, who let MSU's rushing game torch them all day
(for 287 yards). And once again Northwestern failed to get a lot of pressure on
MSU's QB Hoyer, although they did hold up when it counted: in the overtime NU
held MSU to 4 incomplete passes (blitzing on the final 2 plays and getting
enough pressure to force bad throws). The 'Cats never trailed, though, and the
defense held up well enough for the win, but obviously there is more to be
In the end it was a great day for Northwestern as the offense
really came to life and the players and coaches proved to themselves and the
Wildcat fans that this team is for real and will compete the rest of the way in
this 2007 season as they stand at 3-3 going into the second half of the year.
Player of the Game: NU QB CJ
Bacher (38-49, 520 yds, 5 TD, 0 INT): on his record-breaking day, nobody can
deny CJ this honor. He really turned things around after last week's tough game
and threw amazingly well to lead NU to a victory.
Northwestern Offensive Line: There is one reason that CJ had
the opportunity to do what he did today - and it was the OL. This is the OL
that hasn't been able to pick up the blitz all year and had a meltdown against
both Michigan and Duke and never showed up against OSU. They gave CJ all day to
throw the ball and executed their blocks very well. It looked like a completely
different line out there and they deserve the credit for such a great
performance - especially considering MSU has given teams big problems up front
with their pass rush so far this season.
Northwestern Receivers: Peterman (9 catches,
141 yds, 1 TD), Yarbrough (4 catches, 104 yds, 1 TD), Lane (4 catches, 44 yds, 2
TD), Thompson (3 catches, 54 yds), Ward (8 catches, 55 yds), Conteh (5 catches,
79 yds, 1 TD), Jones (2 catches, 25 yds). These guys were on fire, with both
great catches and great runs after the catch - including a great TD run by
Peterman and a long TD run by Yarbrough, plus great TD catches by Lane and some
acrobatics by Thompson (2 great leaping catches on the first drive). Oh, and
don't forget Conteh with some great moves out of the backfield and Ward with
some important receptions.
NU Offensive Coaching Staff: Made the
necessary adjustments to get the NU offense running on all cylinders and to get
points in the red zone (only 2 trips yielded no points: a botched FG snap, and a
missed FG). Showed great progress after the Duke game in which NU just couldn't
punch in that TD it needed late in the game. Plus, the OL performed very well
and picked up the blitz and allowed virtually no pressure on CJ all day.
Stefan Demos: Deserves some credit
for averaging 42.5 yds/punt and getting 3/4 punts inside the 20 plus 2/7
kickoffs as touchbacks.
What to Work On:
Defense: The defense,
particularly against the run, looked horrible all day as MSU was able to run
free against NU (fortunately the offense bailed them out). Just a week after
stopping Hart cold, the 'Cats looked lost and couldn't handle Ringer/Caulcrick.
Add to that the fact that NU could not generate any turnovers once again and
they are lucky to be walking out with a win. The only reassuring stat was in OT
when they forced MSU to throw 4 straight incompletions (although one has to
wonder why they didn't run the ball) and showed some pressure on the QB the
final 2 plays. Between this game and the Nevada game: is the only time NU can
pressure the QB during the last 2 plays of the game?
Kicking: I fully expect Villareal to recover
from his woes on the day, but he did end up going 6-7 on XPs (although he missed
his 1 FG attempt - that would have put NU ahead in the closing seconds of the
game). It was one aspect of the game NU had been solid on all year and it
almost cost them (a botched snap/hold prevented NU from having a chance at
taking the lead late in the game as well), fortunately the offense bailed them
out as well.
- 3rd Down
Conversions: NU went an amazing 13/19 on 3rd down conversions
(68%) which was definitely a huge factor in the win. Many of those conversions
were long passes by CJ and great catches by the receivers, coupled with amazing
protection by the OL.
Once again, Northwestern kept the penalties to a minimum, being flagged only 3
times for 30 yards (which is in the range of last year's numbers). Keeping the
self-inflicted wounds down was a boon to NU's efforts on the day - especially
offensively when the drives kept flowing.
Big Plays: Northwestern was both helped and hurt by the big play: NU had
multiple long TD passes (Yarbrough, Peterman receptions) but was hurt by long TD
runs by MSU on the other side. One thing that did not happen, though, was a
Turnovers: Neither team had a turnover, although Northwestern did block a
punt which vastly improved the 'Cats' field position.
- Pass Happy Offense: CJ was on, the OL was a
wall, and the receivers plucked almost everything out of the air against MSU
which led to big offensive numbers. But the fact is that NU has become a
pass-first offense (much like what we see out of Texas Tech and Hawaii). While
it is exciting and has the potential to put lots of points on the board, when
things don't click ( e.g. Duke, OSU this year) things can get ugly. One has to
wonder if NU is headed into the pass-happy version of the spread offense and
abandoning its roots as a run-based spread attack. Conteh did have some nice
runs on the day, though, and NU ran on 41% of plays - but the fact is that the
passing game was very successful while the rushing game (despite picking up 2
TDs) wasn't gaining NU that much yardage.
Finishing: NU showed again that it can finish the game, despite some
kicking hiccups late in regulation. The team came out in OT and took that game,
grabbing a quick TD and stopping MSU cold. It is something that was questioned
after Duke and OSU but the 'Cats came through again (much like against Nevada).
This was a great win for Northwestern
to give the 'Cats some momentum going into the 2nd half of the season and to
prove that they are a competitor in the Big Ten. Right now NU stands not too
far off from what many expected at 3-3 even with tough 3 tough losses including
2 winable games against Duke and Michigan and the blowout at the hands of OSU.
The potential is definitely there for Northwestern to make some noise in its
final 6 games and excitement should be in the air next week as NU will face
Minnesota in its homecoming game.
jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.