Nov 10, 2017

3rd Time’s A Charm

In regards to the 2017 ‘Cats, the phrase above is a very apt descriptor of the remarkable feat that Fitz and his team have accomplished over their last 3 consecutive football games: each requiring overtime via the NCAA-mandated Princeton tiebreaker protocol to determine its final victor and all won by the Northwestern Wildcats, the first team ever in Division 1A to have turned such a three-peat trick in FBS history.  Truly, this isn’t your grandfather’s Northwestern football team.

One thought-provoking tangent from this first-of-its-kind achievement was the point that, IMHO, NU never received what I justifiably felt was a higher degree of interest that normally would have been proffered to a team that secured a modern-era record as distinctively unique as this one happens to be.  In fact, although it was mentioned during various TV, cable and internet sports outlets handling college gridiron storylines, local & national media and collegiate football fans at large relegated it either as a casual curiosity that deserved little more than token reference or it wasn’t worth mentioning at all.  And yet, had this never-before-done three-peat OT victory streak been delivered by some traditional powerhouse football program, like the Noted Dames, Da BuckNuts or a State Penn, you could rest assured that media gnomes of all shapes & sizes would have been gushing effusively all over their notepads & microphones at such a newsworthy deed.  However, since this feat was realized by “Just Northwestern,” it appeared that most folks chose to look beyond its significance within the general landscape of collegiate football.  So subsequently, I suppose the Wildcats received the appropriate amount of notoriety befitting a team sporting a relatively pedestrian 6-3 record, understated as it was. 

But then again, could anyone within the vast community of college football journalists truly be held accountable for overlooking NU’s fantastic triumph since, coincidentally, it was overshadowed in the same afternoon by a pair of wholly unexpected, mind-blowing, red-letter upsets that befell two of the perennially-ranked, powers-that-be football programs within the B1G?  In addition, these two shocking upsets were even more momentous to the 2017 post-season bowl bid fortunes of Fitz’ Wildcats in the fact that they were carried-out at the hands of the very B1G teams which took the high hard haymaker to the chin in the first two OT games won by the ‘Cats two & three weekends ago, respectively: the first – Io_a’s brutally thorough 55 (yes, that number is correct)-to-24 dismantling of Da No. 3 BuckNuts; and the second – Moo U.’s game-clinching, fairytale FG booted in the game’s final 4 seconds of regulation time against their protected B1G rival, the No. 7 Inmates of State Penn, that captured the “W” flag for the Green Meanies.  In both contests, the equally improbable victory by the home team underdogs virtually eliminated any & all aspirations held by either Da BuckNuts or State Penn for their inclusion onto the 2017 Division 1A College Football Playoff’s racing card. 

Because Moo U.’s cable coverage was delayed 3.5 hours due to lightning strikes in the vicinity of the stadium, a crazy coincidence arose in which the TV & cable broadcasts for each of these 3 games were aired during the same 2:30 PM CDT timeslot.  Subsequently, since I was extremely interested in all 3 games, I went into full OCD man-cave mode constantly flipping between cable channels via my remote control in an insane attempt to watch all three broadcasts simultaneously as best as I could.  And frankly, I cannot imagine that I was alone in this completely nutso task to witness current details from the three games in real time.  As each game’s ongoing upset scenario unfolded in all its individual glory, I couldn’t help but think that if both Io_a & Moo U. turned the trick of beating their prohibitive favorite opponent, then that dynamic duo of unlikely defeats might set-up NU for a potential windfall of residual post season favors… If only the Wildcats could do the needful in their current game.  But of course, this is NU; and it could never be that simple.  In head-scratching fashion, although  he faced an injury-riddled, relatively porous BugEater D, Wildcat QB, Clayton Thorson, reverted to his “Bad CT” field play habits from NU’s Wisky & State Penn losses – missing open receivers and making plain poor decisions overall, especially in his passing game where Mick McCall’s Junior primary playmaker accrued a modestly unspectacular 54% completion rate.  IMHO, Thorson is currently underperforming badly and, most alarming, when competing against the Wildcats’ reputedly easiest foes from their 2017 B1G conference slate, a series of 4 weaker teams whom Thorson & Co. should be dissecting & dispatching in short order.  Then Holy Crap on a Cracker, my pot of frustration boiled-over when Clayton hand delivered a pair of brainfart-induced TDs to Nebby via completely avoidable INTs that:

1.    Reversed a potential Purple scoring opportunity on the possession following Kyle Queiro’s sweet INT midway through Q1.  On the ensuing offensive series, after having pushed the LOS to the UNL 22, CT forced an ill-advised pass to a double-covered target receiver that was easily picked off at the Nebby 7 then returned to the BugEater 39.  This passing gaffe not only killed-off sure points which would have extended NU’s 7-0 lead, but shifted Miss Momentum back to the home team who promptly rode its newfound wave of emotion to mount a 10-play, 61-yard drive ending in a BugEater game-tying TD near the end of Q1.  Dumb & dumber.

2.    Hand-delivered Nebby a Pick-6 TD on the 3rd play of NU’s 1st possession of Q3, when Thorson’s horrible pass missed its intended target by 5 full yards and was picked off by BugEater LB, Marcus Newby, in the short left-side boundary zone.  The grateful Mr. Newby accepted the giftie INT by deftly making an easy snatch on the errant toss then, upon seeing nothing but long green before him, sprinted free & clear down the sideline into the home team’s end zone, giving UNL its first lead of the match at 21-17, with virtually most of H-2 still to play.  Mr. Thorson… What, if anything, were you thinking?

So now, at this juncture within a tightly contested grapple, I’m crossing both my fingers & toes hoping that, someway, somehow, CT will extract his cranium from his rectal orifice and get his passing QB act together enough to resuscitate himself from potential self-strangulation by playing his position with a modicum of the proficiency that he had demonstrated against Moo U.  However, all this Thorson “return to form” crappola meant absolutely nada without an indispensable assist from the Wildcat D that must rise to meet the challenge of controlling the now fired-up BugEater O with appropriate efficacy to proffer CT the required time to get his mind right and redeem himself.  And thankfully, that’s exactly what occurred, despite the necessity of having to send the game into overtime to do exactly that.  You know the rest…  NU takes possession of the bean first in the OT-1 period then efficiently drives the bean the obligatory 25 yards in 7 plays to TD paydirt, garnering NU a 31-24 lead for its effort.  On UNL’s follow-up possession, its only offensive series in OT-1, Doc’s relentlessly aggressive D handcuffs BugEater QB, Tanner Lee, into the following inconsequential 4-n-out sequence of downs:
●    An incomplete pass from Mr. Lee, who exhibited “happy feet” in the face of a strong pass rush push by Doc’s hard-charging DL;
●    A timely 10-yard sack on Lee by standout Frosh DT Samdup Miller that stretched the BugEater’s to-go yardage to 20 clicks;
●    A near-inconsequential, 8-yard check-down pass completion in the short middle zone of the ‘Cat secondary;
●    Finally on 4th-n-12, a 2nd incomplete pass via a well-played PBU by ‘Cat CB, Kyle Queiro. 

Lights out in the pool hall, baby.  In the end, as they had done in their previous two Saturdays, the Cardiac ‘Cats come through in the clutch for their 3rd OT win in as many consecutive games – a historical-hysterical FBS first.

To quote Charles Dicken’s novella, A Christmas Carol, “And abundance rejoices.”

How the ‘Cats Zapped the BugEaters

It’s What’s Up Front That Counts
I’m delighted to declare that one of the most satisfying positive developments in overall field play among the entire Wildcat team has come from the personnel populating NU’s 2-deep roster of offensive linemen.  This current unit doesn’t remotely resemble the porous, inept blocking franchise that was an all too familiar sight throughout NU’s 3 losses in the opening half of the 2017 season and, as of late, has become a reliably crucial contributor in the ‘Cat’s historic skein of 3 OT victories.  Although a far cry from the well-oiled OL machines fielded by the Wisky Drunkards or the State Penn Inmates, OL coach Adam Cushing’s Big Ugly playmakers have acquitted themselves very well in the 4 consecutive B1G conference contests following their comprehensive dismantling in the State Penn match.  Consequently, I must give sincere, well deserved credit to this unit for all their hard work and due diligence towards correcting their once many deficiencies.  Their ongoing commitment to excellence, at long last, is reaping highly valued dividends for the Northwestern O in the form of less self-inflicted wounds such as missed blocking assignments & brainfart penalties as well as a marked reduction in the number of sacks given-up over the course of a single game, any one of which can stymie an offensive drive at a critical moment in a closely contested contest (e.g.: in OT).  When building any lasting structure, the most significant item is a solid, immovable foundation.  Thankfully, NU’s OL are well on their way to becoming that reliable foundation for the Wildcat offense skyscraper.  

The ‘Cats’ grapple against the BugEater defense last Saturday was a prime example of the ‘Cat OL’s improved performance profile.  Not only did the Purple OL eliminate any sack from the final stat sheet, they allowed just 2 TFLs for a paltry minus 3 yards net over the entire game.  In addition, the ‘Cat OL reduced their penalty count to 3 over the 60 minutes of regulation time – one highly dubious chop-block (which truly it wasn’t) & 2 false starts – and, even more critical, zero flags in OT, where the effects of minus yardage plays are magnified.  Now that’s what I’m talking about! 

Kudos all around, fellas.   

The Right Stuff – Defensive Four-Pete
For the fourth consecutive game, DC Doc Hankwitz’ defensive front 7 went into full lockdown mode once again against a B1G offense in the Nebby BugEaters who showed admirable resiliency against the Perdue Broiler-Chickens by scoring the game-clinching TD in the final 14 seconds of regulation to garner a 24-23 “W” the previous weekend.  In fact, UNL QB, Tanner Lee, went Medieval on the Broiler-Chickens, as he literally peppered Perdue’s defensive secondary for a career best 32 completions off 54 attempts for another career best 431 total yards & 2 TDs.  Only issue with that laudable passing stat sheet is that Nebby’s injury-plagued D was equally porous facing the Perdue O, turning this game into a knock-down, drag-out slugfest dominated by both combatants’ offenses. 

However, this game was one where NU’s defensive brain trust made the pre-game executive decision to stone the Nebby rushing attack first then transfer the heavy lifting responsibility for UNL’s the offensive yardage production to the arm of the BugEaters’ QB, despite Mr. Lee’s collegiate career defining passing day facing the Broiler-Chicken’s D.  Subsequently, as a viable defensive strategy, Doc’s decision proved to be very effective as the UNL ground game was limited to a mere 112 net yards gained off 31 attempts, while the Wildcat defensive front 7 collected 7 TFLs netting the BugEater O a minus 26 yards lost for the effort.  As for the BugEaters’ passing game, Mr. Lee did an adequate job of lifting the yardage generation load by completing 21 of 38 throws for a deuce & a quarter yards gained with 2 TDs scored.  However those middling passing stats were, point in fact, a false positive for the UNL QB if only because his QBR was a dog lay 21.0 for the afternoon – nothing to write home to mother about, indeed.

This lockdown thing by Doc’s D against a B1G opponent’s rushing attack is beginning to become a welcome, familiar habit rather than the occasional exception to the norm.   

No Fly Zone
Although Nebby QB Tanner Lee compiled some decent numbers in yards gained through the air, his bottom line effort was neutralized by 3 INTs that not only thwarted those 3 BugEater offensive possessions; they turned the ball over to NU’s offense as well.  Despite Thorson & Co.’s failure to do much in terms of mounting any kind of scoring drive on the heels of the first two picks, the third pick, at the 10:36 mark of Q4 by ‘Cat Safety, Godwin Igwebuike, at the Wildcat 16 yard line was a super significant game-changing play simply because it killed a potential UNL scoring drive threat that could have inflated NU’s current deficit from 7 to 14 points with 10 minutes left to go in the game, an daunting scoreboard hole from which the ‘Cat offense, with near 100% certainty, never would have been able to climb-out of.  With that pick, not only did the home team Wildcats dodge a kill-shot bullet, it shifted game momentum back in the Purple team’s favor once and for all – something the ‘Cats desperately needed at that point-in-time.  And it’s at this critical juncture that Clayton Thorson flushed his underwhelming quarterbacking field play of the previous 15 minutes and raised his playmaking back to its expected high quality level.     

Thank Gawd for small favors.

The Reel Thing – Once More
With the bean hand delivered to the Wildcat O by Igwebuike’s INT, Thorson & Co. took full advantage of this giftie extra possession by mounting their own meticulously efficient drive towards the BugEater goal line some 84 yards downfield from their starting field position at the ‘Cat 16 yard line. This crucial offensive series saw: 
●    A brainfart defensive ‘hands to the face’ penalty on BugEater CB, Lamar Jackson, who not only shoved his right hand into the chicklets of ‘Cat WR Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman to avoid the RS Frosh’s downfield block, but followed that illegal stiff-arm with a retaliatory haymaker left cross to the chin of the Purple wideout, directly in front of a field judge, earning the numb-nuts DB a personal foul flag & a seat on the UNL bench for his troubles, while giving the Wildcat O an additional 15-yard walk-off after the play was over.  IMHO, Jackson should have been tossed forthwith from the game for that egregious flagrant foul – but he wasn’t; 
●    Thorson delivering NU’s first 3rd-n-long conversion for a first down in the entire game, a 20-yard aerial dart completion to ‘Cat WR Flynn Nagel, after having failed in the previous 9 attempts to collect a first down off a 3rd down play;
●    Five plays later, on a do-or-die 4th-n-1 down, JJtBC takes the handoff from Thorson, lowers his pads and blasts into the teeth of the BugEater defensive line for a critical 2-yard gain via a powerful, all-or-nothing rush that reset the LOS at the Nebby 7 and conveyed a greatly anticipated 1st-n-goal scenario to Thorson & Co., extending the current offensive series with an additional 4 downs to hit paydirt.
On the very next down, the 13th play of the drive, Thorson sets-up for a pass behind his pocket protection wall, takes 2 steps forward to avoid the Nebby DEs crashing around the NU backfield from the defensive edge, then sees a 5-yard wide seam open-up in the right B-gap of the hand-fighting OL-DL tandems.  CT tucks the ball under arm then sprints free & clear towards & across the BugEater goal line to convert the game-tying TD with 5:24 remaining on the game clock, knotting the score at 24 all.  It is THE highlight reel, gut-check defining offensive moment of the match for the ‘Cat O. Without it, the ‘Cats trudge back to Evanston with their collective tails between their legs and bruised egos left on the floor of the Nebby visiting team’s locker room. 

Then comes overtime.  NU loses the pre-OT coin toss and the BugEater captains choose to defend.  Thorson & Co. gladly accept their fate to receive possession of the bean in the top half of OT-1 and do their best to score points in the first offensive series of this extra period.  On the first play from scrimmage, the Nebby D appeared to expect to defend the Purple aerial circus with a pass-happy Thorson as NU’s Big Top circus ring master of ceremonies.  Instead, NU’s OC Mick McCall calls on Northwestern’s ground-n-pound offensive game and it pays immediate dividends.  Consecutive rushes of 12, 6 & 5 yards against a soft BugEater defensive front 7 resets the LOS for a 1st-n-goal down at the UNL 2.  Three straight plays (an A-Gap dive, a toss sweep to the left defensive edge and a QB sneak) attacking the Nebby defensive LOS specifically set in a gap-8 goal line formation nets 1 measly yard, setting-up a 4th-n-goal at the UNL 1.  On this win-or-go-home-a-loser down, Purple WR Ben Skowronek goes into motion from his initial left wing position then crosses behind Thorson and resets himself directly behind the right outside shoulder of the Purple QB.  CT receives the snap from under center, takes a single side-step to his right then digs his cleats into the turf and drives hard into the right A-Gap of the LOS.  With a hard push/assist from behind by Skowronek, Thorson bulldozes the bean over the Nebby goal line to score the go-ahead TD, the 5th TD for NU in as many OT periods across the Wildcats’ last 3 games, each of which had been sent deliberately into overtime. 

This time around, Clayton Thorson used his feet to do the needful in OT-1; and NU was comfortably sitting in the victor’s driver’s seat to capture the “W” flag with his highlight reel-worthy 1-yard plunge.  Redemption is sweet, No?


Once again, NU could have lost this toe-to-toe bar room brawl with the Nebby BugEaters at any one of a half dozen critical points in the game.  In particular, I’m recalling that damned pair of INTs from Clayton Thorson which led directly to 2 very valuable TDs for Big Red.  Without those pick-conveyed TDs, NU was literally “Rollin’ down the road in some cold blue steel; I had a bluesman in the back and a beautician at the wheel” towards a well-earned, relatively pain free victory.  Instead, the ‘Cat O was in a virtual nosedive, losing altitude fast and headed for a life-altering meeting with Mother Earth.  That the Wildcats responded to this dilemma when they pulled the joystick back in the nick of time to end their deadly passing attack tailspin and restore a level trim to their offensive aircraft was a credit to the ‘Cat D for not allowing the game to get too far gone in the rearview mirror for the Purple team to recover and to QB CT who showed resilient grit & determination to flush his earlier passing gaffes and reposition the driving wheels of the Purple “W” train back on its rails and chugging to its final destination of  Grand Victory Station.  True, NU’s three consecutive OT wins set a historical NCAA Division 1A precedent, but even more impressive is the fact that all 5 offensive possessions across all three of these overtime situations ended with Thorson & Co. coming through in the clutch to score, not a kiss-your-sister FG, but a highly prized TD.  That’s a TD (5) scored on every single possession (5) in every single OT period (5) across all 3 overtimes.  IMHO, that’s the most noteworthy accomplishment of all. 

And incredible as it may seem, with this latest on-the-road win against the BugEaters, the ‘Cats actually received a modicum of national recognition for their outstanding “Return On Investment” during their 2nd-half-of-the-2017-season gridiron madness successes.  This past week, Fitz’ Wildcats have collected enough public opinion vouchers to garner an “also receiving votes” status in College Football’s Week 11 beauty pageant listing pair: the Amway Coaches Poll and the AP Poll.  Even more remarkable, the ‘Cats were given the No. 25 spot in the prestigious College Football Playoffs list.  That means that the Wildcats’ “wins against” and “losses to” games carry weight for determining relative value for which college football programs are to be given that Willy Wonka-themed Golden Ticket invitation to College Football’s Big Dance Playoff Series.  Now that’s some heady stuff, to be sure.          

With the Wildcats’ “W” streak at 4 & counting, into Dyche’s Ditch limps a battered & bruised Perdue Broiler-Chicken team, fresh off their own satisfying “W” against the Ill-Annoy Fighting Lovies to snap their B1G game losing streak at 3.  Sporting a overall record of 4-5 at this point in their 2017 pigskin campaign, the Chickens of West Laughable, IN are seeking vindication from their prior deep-fried gridiron shortcomings.  At having taken the measure of the Nebby BugEaters and shoved the backs of Big Red against the wall before succumbing to UNL in their 1-point loss in the final few seconds of that match and then having easily dispatched Rantoul’s B1G Ten Team to extend their season-long “Lovie Smith Death March” misery index to its 7th “L” in a row, Perdue is ready, willing and loaded to take on the Big, Bad Wildcats in their own preemptive drive towards 6-win post-season bowl eligibility.  It’s that very scenario that transmutes this weekend’s bug tussle grapple against a recently resuscitated Broiler Chicken team as the Cats’ ultimate Trap Game of 2017.  This gruesome sentiment is not born out of run-away paranoia or out-of-control conspiracy theory, but this game has all the ear markings of a major letdown in the aftermath of NU’s thrilling roller coaster ride triple play into OT Victory Lane.  If perchance, Doc’s D goes into some crazy catatonic zombie state or JJtBC sustains a devastating game/season-ending injury from a tackle on some non-descript 5-yard rush or Clayton Thorson experiences an incapacitating QB mental meltdown, then the Wildcats are wholly beatable.  Yes, I said it… The “Cats are beatable simply because, for the first time since the BuGS-U game back in September, the Purple team has been given favorite odds of plus 3-points (actually it’s 6 points at the time of this commentary’s composition) by those all-knowing taking heads from Sin City, NV. 

Rather than diving head-first into a bottle of Skull Popper Deluxe Rye, I’ll take the more sensible route and simply hand-tap my own mental “Trust Yourself” board and deposit these debilitating ruminations of Wildcat gridiron sudden failure onto the trash heap of discarded needless worry. 

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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