Post Game


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 desired.

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.

Honorable Mentions:
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.

Random Observations:
- 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.
- Penalties: 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 momentum-shifting turnover.
- 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).

Final Thought:

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.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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