Post-Game Analysis: Syracuse
by Jonathan Hodges


It was a warm sunny day in Evanston that turned out to be a great start to the 2008 season for Northwestern (1-0, 0-0) as the 'Cats beat Syracuse (0-1) by a final score of 30-10.  The NU defense led the way with a safety (on intentional grounding in the end zone) to kick off the scoring and Brendan Smith returned an interception for a touchdown later in the game to give NU a boost.  CJ Bacher overcame an early interception and threw 3 TD passes on the day, going 23-35 passing with 215 yards.  Tyrell Sutton gained 144 yards on the ground with 21 carries and added 41 receiving yards and a TD reception.  Meanwhile, Syracuse never got much of an offensive attack going after a long first drive (that resulted in a field goal), and outside of a rushing TD that began from a Sutton fumble at the NU 13, the Orange only had one other scoring opportunity that was a missed FG (that went off the uprights).

For Northwestern, many questions were answered that deserve some further analysis, which I will take the opportunity to break down here:

Offensive Line

The young offensive line responded in a big way paving the way for 269 rushing yards from the 'Cats, including 144 from Sutton and another 71 from Conteh.  Also, they only allowed one sack on Bacher (which was more of a technicality as he ran the ball out of bounds near the line of scrimmage) and overall CJ saw limited pressure up front.  The starting 5 on the day were (from left to right) Netter, Kennedy, Burkett, Belding, and Taylor.  Mattes was expected to be the starter but the injury he sustained near the end of camp was apparently enough to keep him off the field for the opener, although he was spotted in full pads on the sideline.  While there were mistakes from time to time (see the play that found Syracuse players in the backfield and able to strip the ball from Sutton just after the handoff) it was an overall solid performance that should bolster their confidence going into the rest of the season.  Also, don't discount the fact that NU really came on strong later in the game and in the 4th quarter showed that they could basically run the ball when they wanted - and the increase in performance later in the game is definitely a welcomed change when compared to last season.


If 'Cats fans were wondering what impact the new DC Hankwitz would have, they saw that impact on Saturday.  NU held Syracuse to one TD and one FG, but the 'Cats' D basically made up for all of that scoring by racking up a safety and INT return for a TD themselves.  The FG drive was the first of the game and it was obvious that the defense was getting comfortable with its new strategy, and later on in the game they really began to shine.  The TD was given up when Syracuse obtained the ball on the NU 13 afer a fumble, so Syracuse was already within the red zone.  All in all, the Wildcat defense proved itself and now has a new image to live up to this season - a winning defense.

Fitz's Head Coaching

Despite the fact that NU was locked in a close game until midway through the 3rd quarter, Fitz kept his cool and stuck with the game plan.  The offense wasn't clicking early and gave up the ball twice (CJ's interception on the first drive and Sutton's fumble at the beginning of the second half) but he didn't deviate from the plan and it paid off in the end.  Each aspect of the game - offense, defense, and special teams - eventually led to NU's win against Syracuse.  For instance, on offense, NU punted on 5 of 7 possessions in the first half and while there were a couple of occasions where one may have called for NU to go for it, the patience paid off (NU punted from the 33 and landed the ball on the 3 which led to the safety on Syracuse).  And NU came on very strong at the end of the game, scoring 3 TDs in their final 6 possessions - with the final possession basically being a clock-bleeder to finish off the game.  Credit him for having NU prepared for a battle and to be resilient throughout the game even when things weren't going NU's way.

Player of the Game:  Northwestern S Brendan Smith (5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT (26 yard TD return), 1 PBU) Smith's contributions to the NU defense exemplified what the entire unit did - they attacked.  Wootton had a sack and a couple of QB hurries, Arrington had 10 tackles including 2 TFLs, Davie added another 7 and he forced the safety by getting the Syracuse QB to throw to nobody while in the end zone, McManis had 4 tackles and a PBU, and I could go on.  The defense as a whole performed as well as any NU unit I've seen in person - they basically allowed Syracuse into field goal range on two occassions during the game, and during the second half they gave up only 72 total yards.

NU Honorable Mentions:
- RB Tyrell Sutton (21 carries for 144 yards, 4 receptions for 41 yards and 1 TD)  Sutton returned healthy and made a big impact right away.  He basically fueled NU's offense by racking up 6.9 ypc and averaged over 10 yards per reception.  He also ripped off a couple of his signature tackle-breaking runs.  While NU didn't lean on him (Conteh added another 12 carries for 77 yards) he provided the ground game NU needed to keep going.  Also he repsonded following his second half first minute fumble that gave Syracuse the lead temporarily.
- QB CJ Bacher (23-35 for 215 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 4 carries for 19 yards)  CJ responded in a big way after an INT on the first NU drive of the day (which was thrown just a bit hight).  Apparently Syracuse decided to cover NU's top receiver from last year, Peterman, man to man throughout the game which gave CJ a hard time on a couple of occasions (typically as the slot receiver Peterman isn't in man to man that often) - but CJ adjusted and found the open man.  It also looks like it took a bit for him to get in sync with his new coordinator and the receivers on the field, but once he did the offense ran very well and NU racked up the points it needed for the win.  Look for things to be better right off the bat in the next game after getting comfortable on Saturday.
- P Stefan Demos (6 punts, 6 inside 20, average 32.0)  While Demos' punts didn't result in big yardage numbers, they made a huge impact in the game.  Fitz and the staff trusted in him to get some medium to short kicks inside the 20 when NU drives stalled near midfield, and he put some real nice punts right where they needed to be.  In fact, I can't remember the last time an NU punter stuck 6 punts inside the 20 in one game.  One of his punts, downed at the 3, directly led to the NU safety by the defense on the ensuing drive.  Also, he dropped a punt but recovered and then kicked it down to the 4 yard line, which is pretty amazing given the defenders bearing down on him.  Also, credit the NU punt coverage for getting down there and downing the ball and stopping any chance of a return - the unit featured some youngsters from the backfield including Arnold and Mabin.

What to Work On:
The defense just needs to keep things going like they started off against Syracuse.  They almost added another takeaway when Syracuse lost the ball near their own goal line, but fumbles will eventually bounce the right way.  While the unit didn't have many sacks, they put a good amount of pressure on the QB and the secondary took care of business.
On offense, meanwhile, NU needs to take care of the ball.  Yes, the gaffes were early in the game and the offense responded, but those two turnovers stopped a potential scoring drive and then basically handed Syracuse a TD.  And on the day, the 'Cats lost the turnover battle 1-2 - something that would spell defeat agaisnt tougher teams.  Overall, though, it was a solid performance that featured them coming on strong at the end - which is a welcomed difference from last year and something that will hopefully continue.

Random Observations:
- Young Players: It was great to see some young players hit the field on the OL, in the defensive secondary, and especially on special teams.  Ebert made his first collegiate reception which was a TD (NU's first TD of the season - pretty good for a guy who hasn't even been to a college class yet); Mabin, Arnold, Bolden, and Peters all saw the field; Rooks had the first TD reception of his NU career; DiNardo got some playing time at DT; and a lot of the younger members of the OL unit got on the field for the last drive of the game (and contributed by helping NU run out the clock) including Highlen, Watt, Bartels, and Boyle.
- Special Teams: Special teams excelled for NU on Saturday, and don't discount the guys that Fitz put out there.  We saw a lot of speed on the field in those units featuring young members of the secondary (Mabin, Arnold, Bolden) and some guys from other positions that one wouldn't expect, like Conteh (RB), Schmidt (RB), and even Persa (QB).  It seems strange to have the 3rd string QB on the field for special teams (on both kickoff returns and punt coverage) but the fact is that Fitz was putting speed and football talent on the field on those important plays - and it paid off for the 'Cats who did an excellent job on coverage and racked up some decent kickoff return numbers.
- Penalties: I expected NU to rack up more penalties than usual, given that it was the first game of the year with new coordinators, a more attacking defense, a no huddle offense, and a new OL, but the penalties didn't exactly come where I expected.  On the day, NU had 6 penalties for 65 yards - and much of that, 30 yards, came off of two personal foul calls that sustained Syracuse drives.  Wootton got called for a hit to the QB's head which was very much debatable since it appeared like he was purposely avoiding the hit - but the officials got explicit instructions in the offseason to call hits to the QB's head, which they were just following.  Second, Vaughn got called for a late hit out of bounds that was difficult to see from the stands.  Those two penalties, though, were excusable given that the defense stiffened and didn't allow Syracuse to turn them into momentum and points, and the fact is that those were "aggressive" penalties that saw the NU defense trying to make things happen but got caught in a bit of a grey area (since I doubt either was intentional).  Outside of that there was a false start, and 3 holding calls - which are all to be expected from a young OL (albeit one of the holding calls came from senior WR Ward).  I am sure that Fitz will work to minimize these potentially game-changing calls whether from killing drives on offense or, on defense, helping sustain opponents' drives.
- Attendance: You can't get away from an NU home game without me harping on attendance at Ryan Field, and the number for Saturday came in at 20,015 - which wasn't too bad considering where NU was at last year on Labor Day weekend.  There were actually a fair number of people around prior to the game, especially at Wildcat Alley, which was nice to see.  Although the number could have been better for a season opener, I'll take improvement over last year which saw 2 games under the 20,000 mark.  Hopefully with High School Band Day against SIU and the return of the undergraduates for Ohio NU will not dip below that number at all in 2008.

Final Thought
Northwestern did almost everything it needed to do against Syracuse to prove itself coming into 2008 - they persevered on offense by sticking with the plan until the points started coming, they performed very well on defense not only by containing the Orange, but by scoring points themselves, and they nailed special teams, especially on punts and kick coverage.  The OL held up admirably in their first game together, and the DL put pressure up front even without their best player, Gill.  Seniors CJ and Sutton overcame turnovers to excel later in the game.  Next up, though, is a big game for NU as they travel to Durham to try and avenge last year's loss - while Fitz will be harping on taking it one play, drive, and game at a time there is no doubt that many will be thinking back to last year's heartbreaking loss next Saturday.  It will be the next real test of this unit to see what they are made of in 2008.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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