Nov 3, 2017

Steal Away

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger.

Upon a further review of NU’s unlikely but whole-heartedly satisfying triple overtime besting of the then 6-1 (4-0 in the B1G) Moo U. Green Meanies, I can only say that the Wildcats were “Lucky,” in the truest sense of Seneca’s concept of fulfilling one’s destiny through hard work & circumstance, to have claimed victory at the conclusion of this bare-knuckle fistfight in the manner in which they did – by choosing to send the game into overtime for the 2nd consecutive game then capturing the “W” flag in OT-3.  In fact, it would be much more apropos to declare that the ‘Cats were plain “Damn Lucky.”  In the week leading to last Saturday’s back alley brawl with the recently resuscitated Wildcats, Moo U. and their all-class HC, Mark Dantonio, were exceedingly full of themselves as they reveled in the focus-altering euphoria of an undefeated B1G campaign, and become completely intoxicated by the alluring aroma & piquant flavor of the elixir of adulation overflowing the brim of their cup of competitive confidence.  After all, local & national sports media pundits everywhere were gushing effusively about the Green Meanies’ improbable Lazarus-like emergence from their final 2016 resting place: their self-built “3-win crypt of infamy,” to achieve relevance once again within the landscape of Division 1A football via their wholly unexpected bid to contend for the 2017 B1G Eastern Division Crown.  Beating every team thus far that you were supposed to beat (a.k.a.: your underdog opponents) coupled with a commendable W-L split against the two nationally ranked teams on your fall campaign’s 1st half slate of games, especially that humbling red-letter “W” suppository that you thrust up the mellow moon of your 7th-ranked, in-state rival, “Big Brother” Meat-Chicken, will net your team that heady stratospheric amount of universal respect & recognition among adoring fans and mesmerized media-types alike.  A 4-game win streak against B1G foes over the same number of previous weekends doesn’t hurt either.

Now here comes the enigmatic Northwestern Wildcats – a team possessing an allegorical teacup O, that to date, can’t seem to connect the dots between their occasionally efficient ground game and their erratic but sometimes effective passing attack, that doesn’t quite match-up with its saucer D that has progressively improved week-in and week-out by fielding an aggressive, attacking brand of football designed to dominate  & control the LOS and subsequently neutralize the yardage production capabilities of the superior offenses they’ve had to face over the 1st half of their 2017 schedule, especially their foes’ rushing attack.  With the strength of both combatants oriented towards their respective suffocating defenses and each team’s predominant weakness being their scoring-challenged offenses, this match-up was predisposed to degrade into a low-scoring, 1960’s & 70’s-styled trench warfare slugfest that would amplify any offensive field play miscue (i.e.: a turnover or failure to convert a red-zone possession into valuable scoreboard points) from a mere blip on the radar screen to a potential game-changer.  The only problem with this prognostication was that it didn’t take into account the glaring deficiencies of either team to defend their opponent’s passing game.    

How the ‘Cats Corralled Moo U.

“Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat”
This is a famous quotation from the comedic play, Phormio, by Roman playwright, Publius Terentius Afer, written in 161 BC.  I selected this comedy as the special project for my senior (4th year) high school Latin class (rather than take the final exam) and translated “the good scenes” into 1970’s American vernacular.  The plot involves a “crafty” con artist matchmaker, Phormio, who aids in securing the marriage proposals for two poor young men, who are cousins, to their relative love interests who happen to be half-sisters.  Phormio cajoles and bribes the father of the two young women not only to agree to both proposals from these “men of little means” but to provide a substantial dowry for each bride-to-be, while exacting a pricey “merger/acquisition fee” from both grooms-to-be, to be paid from both dowry coffers.  (Aside… The play is excellent, with several humorous plot twists and insights regarding ancient Roman familial & societal morality.) 

Frequently, this quote is translated as: “Fortune (read: ‘luck’) favors the bold.”  This interpretation, in fact, is incorrect.  The more appropriate translation is: “The Goddess Fortuna gives aid to the daring,” – an aphorism with the positive connotation that “The Roman Goddess of Fate will intervene (i.e.: guarantee success) on behalf of those who dare to ‘act bravely’ or ‘courageously take the chance to succeed’.”  Fortuna was one of the most popular figures among the pantheon of Roman gods – the one to whom men & women prayed or gave offerings (money,  possessions or food) to secure a valuable, sought-for item or a positive outcome in some life-event.  Temples to her were built in virtually every city & village across the Roman Empire.  If you were experiencing or about to experience a life-changing event whose outcome was in doubt or highly questionable, like a soldier going into battle or an infertile woman trying to become pregnant, you invoked this Goddess’ intervention and gave her some personal valued offering to ensure delivery of that desired result.   

I have no idea who offered what to the Goddess Fortuna, but a Purple somebody laid a valued Purple something at her feet prior to the kickoff of last Saturday’s NU vs. Moo U. grapple.  What other reason can be proffered to explain how MSU’s journeyman QB, Brian Lewerke, badly overthrew 3 receiving targets who had blown past  their ‘Cat coverage DB‘s & left them far in their rear view mirrors by 10 yards minimum, when previously on Moo U.’s 4th play from scrimmage after the Green Meanies received the opening kickoff to start the game, the same Mr. Lewerke spied his fav WR, Cody White, sprinting free & clear behind his Purple cover DB and deftly dropped a dime in-stride & on-target for a 60-yard completion that set-up Moo U.’s first TD of the contest.  In truth, I can’t say whether or not it was blind luck, fate, favorable tarot cards or funky residual tea leaves left in the bottom of Mark Dantonio’s pregame cup of tea that was the cause for the hitch in Lewerke’s passing giddy-up that made him grossly overthrow these 3 open WRs, especially since he had demonstrated during the Green Meanies’ 1st possession of the game, that he possessed the goods to make such a pitch-n-catch explosion pass play completion with relative confidence & ease.  Talk about dodging 3 kill-shot bullets.  DC Doc Hankwitz’ defensive secondary was living a charmed existence wrapped in the nurturing embrace of the Goddess Fortuna not to have been turned into black-ash toast on any of those 3 overthrows.  If Lewerke had converted just one of those three golden explosion play opportunities, Moo U. would have had a much easier time dispatching the Wildcats.  However, he didn’t; so it wasn’t; as these 3 fortuitous incompletions were conveyed to the grateful ‘Cat DBs who lived to fight-on over the contest’s full 60 minutes and then some.  Anyone who might peruse the game’s sanitized final box score details wouldn’t have a clue how close the Wildcats had come to absorbing the full game-changing effect had any one of these 3 aerial haymaker swings connected with their chin.  

Thank You, Miss Fortune. 

The Right Stuff – Dyche’s Ditch Goal Posts
Two of the most unusual and decidedly impactful Wildcat defenders of the entire game did not trot out from the Purple locker room onto the green grass of Dyche’s Ditch.  In fact they’ve been standing on the ‘Cats’ home field of play for a decade or more – silent, resilient and ready to answer any challenge put before them when called upon to do so.

These defenders aren’t living, breathing human beings; rather, each is the right upright of the two goal posts hovering over the end lines of either end zone on Ryan Field.  And both uprights’ bearing on the final score was super significant.  On its first possession of H-2, Moo U.’s offensive drive stalled at NU’s south-side 33.  In comes MSU’s relatively reliable PK, Matt Coghlin to attempt a challenging 51-yard FG to break the 10-10 tie.  He boots the bean cleanly.  The kick has the distance, but the pigskin starts to drift to the right more & more until… Bonk… It hits the right upright and caroms back into the end zone.  No Good!  Then, in Q4 with MSU trailing NU 17-10, on Moo U.’s 2nd last possession of regulation time, the Green Meanie O stalls at NU’s north-side 15.  In trots Mr. Coghlin once again for a 33-yard FG attempt.  He boots the pill hard and it flies high, but directly on target with… the right upright.  Bonk… it hits the right upright flush for the 2nd consecutive time and falls harmlessly to the Dyche’s Ditch turf.   No Good – Redux!!!

Two of the most critical Purple defenders prowling the Dyche’s Ditch gridiron were… the right uprights of either south & north goal post.  And they came through for the ‘Cats when they needed it the most, blocking those 2 FGs and preventing 6 potential points from being registered on the stadium scoreboard by Moo U.’s special team FG unit.  Talk about the right stuff…  

Twice more, the Goddess Fortuna smiled on the Wildcats.  I’ve gotta imagine that some intrepid Purple-clad football fan(s) traveled to her Evanston Temple and dropped several John Wick-styled gold sovereigns into the alms crater at her feet.  “Tibi gratias ago dominae meae quondam iterum.”

The Right Stuff – Defensive Three-Pete
For the third consecutive game, DC Doc Hankwitz’ defensive front 7 went into full lockdown mode against an MSU team who, in each of their 4 previous B1G contests, had shown an offensive preference to rush the bean first then pass second, as needed.  Moo U.’s standard offensive game plan is based loosely on the Wisky model (which is mimicked virtually to the letter by Fitz and his coaching staff) emphasizing ball control and clock management via a ground-n-pound oriented attack complimented by a defense that sets a premium on taking control of their opponent’s OL by attacking & penetrating across the LOS specifically to compress the operating space of their opposition’s backfield then finding the ball as it shows and swarming to it with extreme prejudice.  And this model has been validated as the Green Meanies field the B1G’s No. 2 run-stopping D coming into last Saturday’s boxing match with the ‘Cats, giving-up a paltry 94 yards rushing per game on average.  That average rushing yards allowed statistic was as telling as any for assessing the quality quotient for Moo U.’s current defense, especially after having faced the rush-centric attacks of both the Io_a & Meat-Chicken offenses in their first 2 B1G games of 2017 and beat them to the punch.  

With those impressive defensive stats fresh in mind as NU prepared for last Saturday’s donnybrook with MSU, Fitz and Doc knew that the heavy lifting for the Wildcats would begin with their defense.  The coaching staffs of both teams knew full well that this game was going to be a repeat of the previous weekend’s grudge match between the Wildcats and the Io_a HogEyes in which each combatant’s D would prevail over the rushing attacks of their opponent’s O.  This expectation proved to be spot on, as the respective ground games for MSU and NU were stymied from the opening whistle to the final gun.  The salient point of this similarity is that the Wildcat defense held its own with respect to Moo U.’s No. 2 rush defense in the B1G.  In other words, the run stuffing capabilities of Doc’s defensive front 7 are on par with any other highly reputed Big Dog D in the B1G – Da BuckNuts, State Penn, Wisky, Meat Chicken… and Moo U., notwithstanding.  

Folks, that’s elite company; and the final outcome of this grapple had its foundation established in forcing the MSU offense to become one dimensional and dependent on its passing attack.  The only problem with Doc’s priority decision to summarily stuff the MSU rushing attack was that this game plan nearly backfired right back into the face of the ‘Cats when the Green Meanies’ middling passing game drilled a 2nd orifice into the behinds of the Wildcats’ secondary.  

Pas De Desseret Por Vous
One of the more frustrating characteristics of OC Mick McCall’s “Not Ready for Prime Time” Junior QB, Clayton Thorson, is his annoying habit of tossing that drive-killing INT at the most inopportune time (which conversely might lead one to assume incorrectly that there could ever be a “good time” to throw a pick in a football game).  However, what, in past games, might have been considered an aberration from the norm, over the last two contests, Thorson hasn’t tossed one single INT.  That’s right; you read it correctly: CT hasn’t baked one hot-n-flakey French Pastry passing turnover (INT or fumble) and served it into the waiting defensive mitts of either Io_a or Moo U.  That’s cause for celebration, if only because NU last 2 opponents had game-planned expressly to stone the Wildcats’ rushing attack and their feature RB, JJtBC; and, by design, to convey the ‘Cats’ scoring burden directly into the hands (and arm) of Mr. Thorson.  And to his credit, CT responded with two of his more commendable passing outings of the Wildcats’ 2017 fall campaign.  Against the HogEyes, despite completing a pedestrian 21 tosses off 36 attempts, for 192 yard & no TDs – CT did so with NO INTs.  Then last Saturday against Moo U., he went one better by completing 33 of 48 passing attempts for an eye popping 356 yards and 2 TDS – and equally as significant, NO INTs.  That’s a remarkable achievement from this writer’s perspective.  I can only hope that this “NO INT” final box score statistic becomes an ongoing trend in Clayton’s continued upwardly mobile passing profile as McCall’s preferred primary ball handler rather than a limited-time-only anomaly.   

Meet JJtPB
One of the most unexpected offensive plays of the 2017 season, let alone the most improbable play from last Saturday’s NU vs Moo U. match, was the featured Wildcat RB’s wholly unprecedented metamorphosis from Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier (JJtBC) to Justin Jackson the Passing Back (JJtPB).  

On the ‘Cats’ first possession of Q4, Thorson & Co. push the LOS into the MSU red zone at the visiting team’s 12 yard line.  On the following 1st-n-10 down, Clayton receives the snap from center in his shotgun position then hands the pill off to JJtBC.  JJ grabs the bean, takes two steps to his right, then, when a 3 yard-wide seam opens-up directly in front of him, he takes 3 steps downfield towards the inviting hole that NU’s OL had opened for him.  Just before he enters the seam, JJtBC pulls up and spies teammate WR Ben Skowronek behind the Moo U. DBs, standing near the end line of the south end zone.  The Moo U. DBs see this open hole at the LOS and JJtBC poised to drive into & through it towards their goal line, so they abandon their cover targets, standing in this middle zone, including Skowronek, and turn upfield to meet the Purple RB in the hole.  The now-stopped Justin lofts a painfully slow, high-arching, shot put-styled toss over the heads of these DB’s who are now 2 full yards in front of the open Mr. Skowronek.  The trajectory of the tossed bean resembles a slow motion floater that appears to be overthrown.  The Purple target WR jumps high, snatches the pill at his highest vertical jump-point and pulls it down, cradling it in his hands while toe-tapping the end zone.  In that moment, the Moo U. DBs recognize JJ’s rush-to-the-LOS bluff, turn back in an attempt to defend the open Skowronek and arrive too late to bat the pigskin away from Big Ben.  The successful TD toss gives the Wildcats a crucial 17-10 lead with just-under 11 minutes left on regulation time, while JJtBC transmutes into JJtPB by throwing his first potential game-clinching dying-quail TD completion of his storied collegiate career.

Lucky… Lucky… Lucky.

The Reel Deal
It’s no great insight to describe the 60 minutes of regulation time of last Saturday’s NU vs MSU donnybrook as a defense-centric haymaker-filled mutual beat-down in which the rushing attack of either team was neutralized by their opposition’s defensive front 7 units.  Consequently, that scenario left the yardage and point production capabilities of the combatant’s offense to the playmaking profiles of their relative passing attacks.  And neither team’s passing offense failed.  I’ve described Moo U.’s starting QB, Brian Lewerke, as a “Journeyman QB,” simply because he had demonstrated the capacity to generate the necessary situational yards & points via his passing acumen in limited situations in previous games; whereas his NU counterpart QB, Clayton Thorson, on the other hand, had shown his aerial playmaking ability on many more occasions throughout his collegiate QB career.  Therefore, I had complete confidence that the Wildcat O possessed a distinct advantage in this relative one-dimensional passing profile comparison.  However, nothing could have been further from the truth.  Mr. Lewerke, not only equaled Mr. Thorson’s passing output throughout this contest, he surpassed it substantially and did so at the most crucial junctures of the game – especially during Moo U.’s final possession in regulation. 

In that offensive series, Lewerke & Co. inherited a starting field position at the MSU 12 yard line with 3:14 left on the game clock.  Advantage Wildcats, No?  Well unfortunately, Fitz & Doc went into a prevent defense set that opened whole areas for the Lewerke-led passing attack to abuse – and did he ever.  With ‘Cat CB’s giving MSU wideouts a humongous 12-yard cushion along the boundary zones to ensure that Moo U. WR pass routes would remain in front of them, Lewerke took full advantage of this huge buffer, throwing 40 yard darts into the open spaces in these short boundary zones and hitting his target receivers with regularity.  In addition, the ‘Cats’ short zone coverage of their prevent D, comprised primarily of their Purple LB corps, likewise were positioned an extreme 12 yards off the LOS, opening the short middle zone for easy exploitation, essentially giving Lewerke & his WRs a free & clear sideline-to-sideline horizontal swath for uncontested pitch-n-catch passes which allowed the Green Meanie O to march downfield like a hot knife through soft butter.  And…  Doc never added a 5th pass blitzer or red-dog defender into the mix of his standard 4-DL pass rush, making this prevent formation a blueprint for defensive failure.  The box score statistics for this single possession tell the sorted tale of defensive coaching stupidity and hubris by NU.  Lewerke completed 6 of his first 7 passes, resulting in yardage gains of 10, 8, 3, 14, 8 & 9 on consecutive throws; followed by his first & only incompletion of the series; followed by 3 more sequential receptions of 4, 12 and finally 13-yards – the last one resulting in the game tying TD with 22 seconds left on the clock, via a highlight reel-worthy circus catch by Moo U. WR Felton Davis as he made a nifty jump-ball grab then tumbled out of bounds with both knees hitting the end zone turf beforehand to ensure the completion.  One could claim that this was Lewerke’s finest moment as a college QB.  On the other hand, I would describe it, more justifiably, as a series of play-calling gaffes & brainfarts by the Wildcat defensive brain trust (read: Fitz) that handcuffed the Purple D into a desperate “play not to lose” mode of inappropriate & ineffectual prevent defense field play that set-up Doc’s troops for unavoidable catastrophic failure.  IMHO, NU’s defense deserved better – so much better.  

However, that last ditch TD score by Moo U. in the final seconds of regulation merely tied the game.  Overtime still loomed like an executioner’s sword dangling on the end of a hair string above the heads of the ‘Cats.  Current circumstances did not look promising for the home team. 

But then, OT reduced the standard 100-yard gridiron to a 25-yard, backyard sized field of play, eliminating the necessity for those damned “prevent defense” sets.  The ‘Cats need only: 1) take care of their offensive business to deliver scoreboard points; then 2) pass the playmaking baton to their counterparts on the D side of the LOS, who, in turn, must perform the needful to constrict the Moo U. offense from duplicating the point production of the Wildcat O.  Simple in theory; but Thorson & Co. had to deliver the goods expected of Part 1.  And Thorson & Co. did not disappoint.    

In OT-1, Thorson goes right to work and completes consecutive passes of 11 & 14 yards, the 2nd resulting in an easy-peazy pitch-n-catch from CT to SB Cam Green, with zero pressure from the MSU pass rush.  Moo U.’s Lewerke answers with a 5-play offensive series that ends with a 6-yard TD toss to WR Cody White that evens the score at 24 apiece. 

In OT-2, it was more of the same, as Lewerke connects with Mr. White once again for the WR’s 2nd TD catch, an 11-yarder, in as many OT periods.  Thorson & Co. answers the bell in NU’s bottom half of the inning, with a 4-play scoring drive that converts the crucial equalizer TD and ties the score at 31-all.  

In NU’s offensive possession in the top half of OT-3, Thorson waits on speedy WR Flynn Nagel to run a short crossing route into open space in MSU’s short middle zone.  When Nagel gets directly in front of his QB, CT throws a precise dart that delivers the bean in-stride & on-target right into the mitts of the wide-open Mr. Nagel, who sprints to the east boundary with ball in hand, gaining separation from his cover DB now trailing the WR by 2 yards, turns downfield along the boundary line and scampers untouched across the Moo U. goal line scoring the 3rd consecutive TD in as many OTs for ‘Cats.  Thorson & Co. add to MSU’s misery when they convert on the OT rules-dictated 2-point PAT attempt via a Thorson to Cam Green pass completion giving the ‘Cats a daunting 9 point lead.  It’s at this is point in OT-3 when & where the Wildcat D delivers the coup de grâce via an unrelenting pass rush from Doc’s defensive front 7.  Lewerke & Co.’s 3rd OT series begins ominously with an incomplete pass when Doc finally shelves his conservative pass rush tendencies and adds that critical 5th pass rusher to the mix, ordering his talented MLB, Paddy Fisher, to shoot the left B-gap of the Green Meanie OL, who obliges his DC’s directive and gets right in to the grill of Mr. Lewerke, forcing the errant throw.  On the next down, NU’s very own Italian Stallion, DE Joe Gaziano, bull rushes the Moo U. LOT and pushes himself & his overwhelmed OL blocker straight back into Lewerke, whereupon Mean Joe swipes the bean out from the grasp Lewerke’s throwing hand, making it roll along the Dyche’s Ditch turf 12 yards upfield away from the MSU QB.  Lewerke recovers his senses, sees the pill lying behind him on the turf, rushes over to it, picks-up the bean and tosses a high-arcing, desperation heave towards the endzone in the withering hope of somehow, someway delivering it to anyone wearing a Green helmet.  ‘Cat LB Nate Hall sees Lewerke’s wounded duck toss, leaps over a would-be Moo U. receiver, snags the bean in flight and falls to the turf with ball in hand, converting a game-clinching INT for the Wildcats.  The Dyche’s Ditch ‘Cat fans go absolutely bonkers while the 1000 or so NU students in attendance rush the field to surround their fellow Purple warrior student-athletes in a delirious celebration at the insanely crazy ending to this bloody battle. 

To be sure, this is highlight reel-worthy stuff, folks.

This Wildcat victory was not a thing of beauty- no far from it.  It was a fitting end to a bloody fisticuff battle royal that took the last measure of focus and resolve from both combatants fighting tooth & nail to capture the “W” flag before one prevailed over the other.  NU happened to receive that magical oversight from the Goddess Fortuna in the form of multiple overthrown passes to wide open Moo U. receivers, goal post upright rejections of 2 MSU FG attempts and Clayton Thorson’s invaluable sequence of pass completions in 3 consecutive OT periods, 2 of which notched highly prized TDs to seal the deal.  Call it blind luck, call it “when preparation meets opportunity” or simply identify it as a very welcome blessing from the appeased ancient Roman Goddess of Fate.  At the end of all the euphoria and such, what matters most is that NU survived a knock-down, drag-out war of attrition to go 1-and-Oh for that weekend and added a crucial 5th “W” on their 2017 gridiron resume that cleared enough of the opaque fog for the Wildcats to begin to see their goal of garnering post-season bowl eligibility on the far horizon.  In fact, many media pundits from all over have poo-poo’d this hard-fought victory as more a Moo U. mistake than an NU achievement.  And when one delves into the fine details of this grapple, that perspective cannot be refuted with much conviction.  Still, this “W” is a “W,” and I will take it, cherish it and place it gently in my vest pocket for safe keeping.     

For now, the intrepid Wildcats must flush this win and prepare to meet the challenge of their next bare-knuckle boxing match, this time against the Nebraska BugEaters in Lincoln, NE.  The BugEaters went toe-to-toe with the Perdue Broiler-Chickens in their own fight to the finish and captured the bar room brawl’s “W” flag when The Big Red’s QB, Tanner Lee, threw a frenetic 13-yard TD pass completion with 14 seconds left on the game clock to secure a slim 25-24 victory.  This 1-point win just might have resurrected the BugEaters’ fading post-season bowl aspirations as Nebby now sports a 4-4 record for 2017.  I expect more of the same from this B1G West Division rival this coming Saturday. 

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

The Waterboy is a former football player and a Northwestern alumnus.  Aside from these facts, he has no affiliation with Northwestern University.  The commentary he posts here is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of

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