Post-Game Alamo Bowl Analysis: Northwestern Vs. Missouri
by Jonathan Hodges


Northwestern (9-4) was just one play away from its first bowl victory since 1949, but as Fitz said in his post-game comments, the Wildcats will not accept moral victories.  Missouri (10-4) came away with a hard-fought OT victory by a final score of 30-23 in a very close Alamo Bowl, a game that was much closer than most pundits (including myself) predicted before the game.  The Northwestern defense was dominant, coming away with 3 interceptions of Missouri's Chase Daniel and holding Mizzou to only 2 offensive TDs in the entire game (one of those coming in OT) as Hankwitz's nickel scheme kept the Tigers' offense from clicking virtually the entire evening.  And the Wildcat offense also put together a solid game, with outgoing senior QB CJ Bacher tossing 3 TD passes (tying an Alamo Bowl record) and over 300 yards, Sutton churning out 114 yards on the ground, and the triumverate of Peterman, Lane, and Ward hauling in those 3 TD receptions.

But in the end, it just wasn't enough as the Wildcats fell in a heartbreaking loss - yes, it was nice to see a competitive bowl game featuring Northwestern, but as Fitz said, all the 'Cats wanted was a win.  Give credit to Mizzou who found ways to win, like racking up 5 sacks, including a back-breaking fumble-causing sack in OT, forcing NU into hail-mary mode to try and send the game into a second OT.  Daniel responded from his 3 INTs earlier to toss the game-winning pass to Maclin in OT.  And, of course, Maclin led the way with 187 all-purpose yards and the all-important game-tying punt return for TD late in the 2nd quarter.

Despite Missouri's impressive effort, though, NU had its chances to win - a Villarreal extra point that clanged off the uprights, a long 46 yard FG attempt that went wide, a late 3rd down coversion that bounced off of Rasheed Ward (who led all receivers with 101 yards and a TD), multiple holding penalties on a key 4th quarter drive, a porous offensive line that allowed 5 sacks on the night, and the aforementioned punt return for TD that was allowed.  All in all, it's tough to look back at what could have been - on one hand the 'Cats put in a vailant effort that sent the game into OT (a game that many expect to be a blowout in favor of Mizzou), but on the other hand the littany of mistakes led to a disappointing loss that seemingly slipped through NU's fingers.

But before dwelling too much on the negative, a lot of credit should be given to this outgoing NU senior class who put in a supreme effort in this football game: CJ Bacher with his 304 yards and 3 TDs (to only 1 INT), Tyrell Sutton with his 114 rushing yards (plus 29 more receiving), Peterman, Lane, and Ward who all had TD receptions, Prince Kwateng with his NU-leading 13 tackles, John Gill with 4 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 QB hurry, Kevin Mims with 2 tackles and 1 QB hurry, and the battery of Brunner and Daley handling long snaps for Villarreal (who will unfortunately receive more than his share of blame for the loss, despite a very solid season and career at NU).  These guys led the way as Northwestern fought until the bitter end and came up just short.  One also shouldn't forget about the 9 regular-season wins that NU accumulated to end up in San Antonio - something that only 5 other NU squads have ever accomplished.

In terms of the atmosphere of the game, it definitely seemed NU-heavy, with the Sun-Times reporting that NU sold out its allotment of tickets (10,800) with NU supporters buying tickets through other channels as well - meanwhile Mizzou sold just over half of its ticket allotment and their side looked relatively sparse and mostly quiet until the very end.  Overall, the announced attendance was almost 56,000, although the number of people at the game was under that a bit, but those in the Alamodome got to see quite an entertaining game.  If future bowls want a team that can make a good game and bring in a solid and excited contingent, they shouldn't look past NU - which was proven once again this year.

Players of the Game:
- Missouri PR/KR/WR Jeremy Maclin (4 punt returns for 82 yards, 1 TD; 1 kick return for 23 yards; 7 receptions for 39 yards, 1 TD; 5 rushes for 43 yards).
  Maclin is most definitely a game-changer and he showed his speed and skill last night, starting with his 75 punt return for a TD late in the 2nd quarter that tied the game at 10 going into halftime.  He sealed the game with his TD grab on a quick slant in OT.  But in between he added with end around rushes and the very threat of his presence on the field - NU had to account for him on every play as they kicked off mostly short to avoid him and shifted defenders around to make sure he was covered.  He led all players with 187 all-purpose yards and 2 TDs and was the primary reason that Missouri came away winners.
- Missouri LB Sean Weatherspoon (17 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 0,5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 QB hurry)  Weatherspoon had a monster game and came up big on what ended up being the biggest play of the game as he was in on the sack and forced fumble of CJ on 3rd and goal in NU's OT possession.  Otherwise, he was all over the place and helped out the Mizzou DL to put pressure on NU's backfield all night and keep the Tigers in the game.  He and Maclin are most definitely next-level talent and proved that again against the 'Cats.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
- NU QB CJ Bacher (27 for 43 passing for 304 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT)  CJ had quite a game, and quite possibly his best game of this season as he tossed for over 300 yards and 3 TDs on the night, with all 3 of those passes to his primary senior receivers: Ward, Lane, and Peterman.  He outshined the nationally-recognized Chase Daniel on the night and went out with a bang, although he surely wanted to go out on a winning note.
- NU RB Tyrell Sutton (29 rushes for 114 yards, 5 receptions for 29 yards)  Tyrell spend the last 2 months fighting his way back from his fractured wrist to play in one last game, and he gave it all he could in a 100+ yard effort on the ground to move solidly into the #2 all-time rushing spot in Northwestern history.  Along with CJ, Tyrell undoubtedly wanted to go out with a win, but he fortunately got the chance to finish his career on the playing field fighting for every last yard just like he has over the past 4 years.
- NU WRs Ward (7 receptions for 101 yards, 1 TD), Peterman (7 receptions for 83 yards, 1 TD), and Lane (5 receptions for 77 yards, 1 TD)  These 3 senior receivers continued to do what they do best, which was get the ball and make things happen.  Ward had a statement game with a flashy 46 yard TD grab, Peterman served as CJ's go-to guy and had a long TD grab of his own, while Lane was up to his usual acrobatics as he got his feet down in the back of the end zone for an amazing TD catch.  It's tough to see these 3 guys go, but they all had quite a game to go out on.
- NU DE Corey Wootton (3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception)  Wootton played his heart out and suffered yet another knee injury for NU as he was running down Daniel in the backfield, but during the time that he was in the game he made things happen for NU, including a key INT and getting the 'Cats' only sack of the night.  Hopefully he will fully recover and attain success in the future - whether that is for NU next season or in the NFL.
- NU LB Prince Kwateng (13 tackles, 7 solo, 0.5 TFLs)  Prince, another senior, led the way in tackles for NU as he had clean-up duty behind the line and took care of business all night.  He had some nice hits as well and went out with a very good senior season as a captain on the defensive side.
- NU Defense: Give credit to the entire D for picking off Daniel 3 times in his collegiate finale and for holding Mizzou to only 2 offensive TDs on the night (only 1 in regulation time).  The DL wasn't getting a lot of pressure on Daniel, yet the secondary got the job done numerous times, allowing him only 200 yards passing on the night and a measly 4.5 yards/pass attempt.  Most pundits expect Mizzou to light up the scoreboard, but that they did not and the NU defense's effort was they key reason.
- Coaching:  Without a doubt, Fitz had this team prepared for battle and he, along with DC Hankwitz and OC McCall, did all they could to put NU in a position to win.  A few blunders on the field cost NU the game, but overall it was a very strong showing for the Wildcats - and Fitz will undoubtedly get additional accolades for putting NU into a position to win its 10th game.

What to Work On:
- Offensive Line:  The OL had quite possibly its worst game of the season, allowing the aforementioned 5 sacks along with 6 QB hurries, and opening up precious little running room as NU averaged 1.8 yards/carry (Sutton averaged a respectable 3.9 yards/carry with the average brought down by the numerous sacks and negative yardage plays allowed on QB runs).  Given this performance, Sutton deserves a lot more credit for his 114 yards, many of which were hard-fought in the way he usually gets them and not due to big openings for him to run through.  And that's not even counting the 4 penalties they racked up (2 false starts and 2 holding calls - with the holding calls on consecutive plays).  The OL did lose RT Taylor early in the game (replaced by Mattes, who has started a good number of games himself), but they didn't have much of an excuse for their performance in the game.  The nice thing is that this is still a young unit - 4 starters will return for next season and a slew of heralded recruits will also be in the mix, so fortunately improvement is plausible.
- Offensive Play Calling:  Hopefully this is something that can improve as OC McCall gains experience and finally gets his system engraved in NU's mindset, but despite some flashes of offensive power (mostly on NU's 3 TD-scoring drives), the offense fizzled as it tried to either extend the lead or bleed the clock.  Tyrell did a fabulous job in his collegiate finale, but he did much of it himself, and in some key red zone situations he was consipicously absent from the game plan.  While this wasn't the single cause of NU's loss, it didn't exactly help to rack up just 33 yards in the 4th quarter as the 'Cats were trying to either hang onto the lead or keep Mizzou from getting the go-ahead score.
- Special Teams:  Throughout this season, NU's special teams has generally helped the 'Cats' cause, but in this game things just didn't go NU's way.  First off was Fitz's decision to go with the pooch kickoff on almost every kick - obviously to keep the ball away from Maclin.  It worked, for the most part, and although it gave Mizzou good starting field position, the NU D generally held.  But it is frustrating that he doesn't trust the special teams to kick deep and try to stop them deep in their own end.  Then there was the punt coverage - all it took was one gaffe and Maclin was gone for a game-tying TD just before the half in a game that NU had otherwise dominated up to that point.  Finally, the kicking game, where Villarreal missed a 46 yarder (not unforgiveable) as well as an XP that could have changed the outcome of the game.  Again, not the single contributor to NU's demise, but another piece of the puzzle.

Random Observations:
- Overtime Games:  NU has fallen to 8-2 all-time in OT games, with the 2 losses coming in the state of Texas (this game and the 2004 game against TCU in Fort Worth).  Note that both games had kicking game blunders: the TCU game featured NU going 1-6 on FGs, while the Alamo Bowl had a missed XP and a missed FG in regulation.
- Attendance:  As mentioned earlier, announced attendance was 55,986 (capacity 65,000), which was respectable, and NU fans seemingly outnumbered Mizzou fans, with a pretty solid atmosphere.  It wasn't a packed house by any means but I would consider it a good showing for Northwestern that should add to NU's bowl game resume.
- Penalties:  NU uncharacteristically racked up a good amount of penalties - 7 for 47 yards - but were helped as Mizzou also contributed with 6 for 32 yards.  The ones that really hurt NU were in the 4th quarter as NU was backed up in its own end and suffered 3 penalties on one single set of downs (1 false start and 2 holding calls).  But note that the officials from the ACC generally called a fair game.
- Turnovers:  NU won the turnover battle 3-1 but ended up losing the game, the first time this season that NU won the turnover battle but lost the game and alos the first time this season that NU gained at least one turnover but failed to win.
- 3rd Down Conversions:  NU converted an impressive 11 of 21 3rd downs (52%) while holding Mizzou well below their 54% season average to 7 of 16 (44%), forcing Mizzou to punt 4 times.
- Time of Possession:  NU did a good job of holding onto the ball, including an impressive 12:24 time of possession in the second quarter, but failed to convert that time into points as the 'Cats only scored a FG in the aformentioned 2nd quarter and failed to move the ball in the 4th quarter (33 total yards in that quarter).  This was reminiscent of the 2007 Wildcats who, despite a pass-heavy attack, controlled TOP but failed to translate that into points on many occasions.

Final Thought:

It was an exciting, although disappointing, finish to the overall successful 2008 campaign for the Wildcats, who finished a still-impressive 9-4, which should leave Wildcat fans wanting more in 2009.  Bacher, Sutton, Peterman, Lane, and Ward all went out with impressive individual performances, but were obviously disheartened by the result of the game.  Overall, this is a team that defied most odds to win those 9 regular season games and put up a huge effort in the Alamo Bowl to almost take down the Tigers, who were big favorites going into the game.  The defense continued its success this year as it held Mizzou to just 2 offensive TDs (1 in regulation) and looks to be the anchor of the Northwestern team heading into 2009 - with many key components returning.  Northwestern found itself "just a play away" from that elusive bowl win and depsite being a good game, any NU fan knows that they wanted that win more than anything.

A full season retrospective will come shortly, including unit grades, player of the year, and more.  But for now happy new year and it's time to start the countdown for kickoff 2009.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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