Oct. 26, 2018

Beware The Letdown

Many members of Wildcat Nation were wringing their hands at the piss poor field play exhibited by NU in their bug tussle against the Rutting Scarlet Blight last Saturday, and it’s more than a little understandable.  After all, the ‘Cats were clutching a tenuous 3-1 B1G West Division record to their bosom after the prior weekend’s heroic 10 point comeback in the final 5-plus minutes of regulation time facing a determined Nebby BugEater squad; and this game was projected to be nothing less than glorified scrimmage against THE worst football program in the 14 team B1G.  The fallacy of that dismissive prediction is that the 2018 Wildcat team is not populated by a bevy of automatons, but is comprised of 18-23 year old young men, who had survived a gut-wrenching wringer of roller coaster emotions in their prior gridiron grapple last Saturday and, subsequently, were prime candidates to suffer that most enigmatic condition of the human psyche known as “The Letdown.” 

“The Letdown” game isn’t the exclusive property of an emotionally fickle collegiate team like the 2018 ‘Cats who often appear to be searching for that subtle formula to attain competitive balance & continuity from one gridiron confrontation to the next.  Even the most talent-laden, traditional powerhouse teams in Division 1A are susceptible to this capricious malaise of elusive consistency.  For two red-letter examples, look no further than the Ohio State BuckNuts and the State Penn Inmates. 

Two Saturdays ago, both of these highly ranked teams (the No. 4 BuckNuts & No. 9 Inmates) played the most  physically and emotionally draining contests of their respective 2018 seasons to date when they locked horns with one another in front of the largest crowd ever at the Inmates’ home venue, Beaver Stadium, in State College, PA.  (Side Note: Setting an all-time Beaver Stadium attendance record of 110,889 is one hellova achievement; but if any one game might have set it, this was it).  Down 26-14 with 8 minutes left in regulation, after Inmate QB McSorley set the PSU yardage production record for a single player in a single game (461 total yards), the BuckNuts switch-on the nitro boost to their top fuel dragster offense then went on a virtual tear over, around & through a State Penn D that had neutralized OSU’s prolific scoring machine over the previous 52 minutes.  Two highlight reel-worthy TD pass receptions, a 47-yard bomb & a follow-up 24-yard pitch-n-catch that included a couple broken tackles, allowed the BuckNuts to best the Inmates in this barroom brawl and capture the “W” flag for a 1-point gut-check victory in that game’s waning minutes.  (Sound familiar?)

In the aftermath of this titanic struggle, State Penn paid the steep cost of a “not unexpected” Letdown the next Saturday when the 13-point underdog Moo U Green Meanies executed their own version of the BuckNuts’ late Q4 come-from-behind rally and took-down the favored Inmates, 21-17, in a B1G East Division showdown that featured a marquee QB matchup between Moo U’s Brian Lewerke and PSU’s Trace McSorley.  Despite those two playmakers passing for 259 yards and 192 yards respectively, it was the Moo U defense that proved itself the difference maker by limiting the Inmate offense to a single FG scored over the entirety of H-2, a stoning that opened the door for the Green Meanie O to outhustle a physically & mentally spent Inmate D and score the go-ahead TD in the final minute of regulation time.  (Again, Sound familiar?)  Making matters even worse, last Saturday the Indy WhoZits came within an eyelash of extending State Penn’s nightmare of their 3rd consecutive “L” when the WhoZit offense literally threw the Inmate D up against the upset wall once more by scoring 4 TDs off 554 total yards gained.  However, State Penn received a get-out-of-jail-free reprieve when a couple of Indy special teams gaffes in H-2 gifted the Inmates two short field TDs that essentially ended the WhoZits bid to secure a 2nd kill-shot upset in as many weekends to Inmate HC James Franklin’s under-performing squad.

As for the BuckNuts, I truly can’t decide whether or not their 49-20 blowout loss to an immensely fired-up Perdue Broiler-Chicken team last Saturday (2 weekends removed from the OSU-PSU donnybrook) should be considered a Letdown or a Clunker.  My pigskin intuition leads me to characterize this wholly unimaginable upset as the ultimate clunker – the same thing that can and does happen to a Grade 1 Thoroughbred after being challenged in a couple of allowance races which were meant originally to serve as strategic preps for a future graded stakes race.  Often these pre-stakes race tune-ups turn into intensive battles for relative horse-flesh supremacy in which the higher-class equine athlete expends his energy reserves to cross the wire at the head of the pack in an exhausting effort to live-up to his reputation as the superior animal.  What’s so commonplace in such cases, the ultimate price for this huge energy disbursement is paid in full when that racehorse enters the starting gate of that more prestigious stakes race already burnt-out and listless; then subsequently, this betting window favorite doesn’t even hit the tote board.  IMHO, this played-out racehorse metaphor is an apropos description of what occurred to the BuckNuts in the weeks following the State Penn fracas and leading up to their supposed walkover against the prohibitive dog Broiler-Chickens.  Despite the fact that the BuckNut O still scored points at a furious pace via their prolific passing game when facing the Indy WhoZits & the Minny Mighty Marmots on consecutive Saturdays; the BuckNut D showed signs of vulnerability, especially when defending the better-than-average passing attacks of these 2 foes.  Subsequently, I wasn’t surprised whatsoever when the Perdue O, led by their much improved QB David Blough, carved-up the BuckNut secondary like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.  The coup de gras came when the OSU offense sputtered in H-1, allowing the game to transform into a veritable route with Blough wielding the Broiler-Chicken passing attack scalpel with a surgeon’s precision (completing 25 of 43 passes for 378 yards & 3 TDs) and True Frosh/Phenom WR Rondale Moore confirming his ascendance as his QB’s go-to receiving target (12 receptions for 170 yards & 2 TDs), while the Perdue offense tallied scoreboard points practically at will throughout Q4. 

After the dust from this melee settled, many collegiate football pundits and analysts branded this upset for the No. 2 BuckNuts as “inexcusable.”  Being much more pragmatic, I’ll proffer it a more genteel appellation and simply call it “A Letdown.”

So here come the Wildcats, basking in the ego-boosting glory of their GOAT come-from-behind victory in the annals of Northwestern University football against the BugEaters, and confidently “prepped” to pound the double-digit dog Rutting Scarlet Blights into submission as their 2018 Homecoming football foe of choice on their home field in Piss-the Cat-Away, NJ.  Unfortunately, the Wildcats weren’t necessarily as “primed” for victory in this road game as much as they were “ripe for the picking;” and to that end, the Scarlet Blights were all too willing to take full advantage of the full-of-themselves ‘Cats.

How the ‘Cats Dodged a Letdown to The Scarlet Blights

To The Rescue
As H-2 commenced, Doc Hankwitz’s troops shook-off any and all negative effects of their collective defensive lapses from H-1 and emerged from the halftime locker room loaded for bear and looking to stone the Rutting Scarlet Blight offense in their tracks. 

‘Cat QB Clayton Thorson didn’t make things any easier on his defensive teammates when poor quarterbacking decisions led to a trifecta of field play brain farts that put Doc’s D squarely behind the eight ball on NU’s first possession of H-2.  On a 2nd-n-10 down at the Wildcat 46, Thorson not only held onto the bean too long as he scanned the RU secondary for an open WR target, he didn’t toss it into the cheap seats of HighPoint-Dot-Com Stadium when the Scarlet Blight pass rush got into his grill.  Worse still, in an attempt to salvage the quickly degrading situation, CT tried to sprint through a seam between three ‘Cat OL who had locked horns with their pass rush DL blocking targets near the LOS.  In the process, those DL converged on CT, smacked the ‘Cat QB hard and forced a fumble that was recovered by the home team at the NU 47. 

The ‘Cat defense didn’t miss a beat, as they limited the scoreboard damage of CT’s brain fart-induced recovered fumble to a red zone FG that increased the Wildcats’ deficit to 15-7 at the 9:58 mark of Q3.  From that point to the end of the game, Doc’s D not only stiffened, they dominated the Scarlet Blight O by stoning the home team to NO 1st DOWNS and UNDER 20 TOTAL YARDS GAINED off 4 CONSECUTIVE 3-n-OUT POSSESSIONS.

Talk about coming to the rescue of foundering Thorson & Co. offense when it was in dire need!!!

Although this summary stoning was laid against the worst offense in the B1G, it was a prime example of the type of defensive dominance that Doc’s troops can muster.  And fortunately for OC Mick McCall’s QB, this dominance set the table for the mini Q4 comeback that eventually won the game. 

The Gambler
Down 15-10 with 12:48 left in regulation time, the Clayton Thorson-led Wildcat offense assumed possession of the bean on NU’s 37 following another 3-n-out defensive stand.  So here they stood… at an undeniable do-or-die crossroads that might determine the victor of this contest.  Either the ‘Cat O takes control of their heretofore craptastic yardage production situation, methodically drives the 63 necessary yards to score the go-ahead TD and survives the Scarlet Blights’ upset bid or they return to Evanston with their collective tails between their legs after having earned the dubious distinction of being named the No. 1 contributor in the ‘Cats’ worst loss of their 2018 campaign (Yes, even worse than that kick-in-the-pants “L” delivered by the Akron Zips in week 3).

Unfortunately, typical to what they’ve done for most of the afternoon, the ‘Cat offense doesn’t respond to the urgency of the situation as one might expect and, after 3 plays, fails to deliver the series’ initial 1st down.  So Thorson & Co. face a crucial 4th-n-1 down at the NU 46, which, if they don’t convert, could very well be the game clinching defensive stop for the Scarlet Blights.  So Fitz assumes the role of Riverboat Gambler and calls for the “Bush Push” QB sneak in which CT sets himself under center awaiting the handoff snap; while, a few seconds prior to the snap, the SB shifts from his original slot position and resets himself immediate adjacent to one side of Thorson as he barks out the final snap count.  Once the ball is hiked, the SB repositions himself directly behind Thorson, with hands on the QB’s butt; then, as Thorson dives headlong into the play’s designed A-gap point-of-attack and drives his legs for all he’s worth, the SB pushes his QB’s backside giving him that extra impetus to cross the LOS and over the line to gain with ball in hand capturing that anticipated 1st down.  On this occasion, it works to perfection as Thorson gains 4 yards to extend the offensive possession another 4 series of downs.

Then 5 plays later, the ‘Cat O faces their second critical 4th down of the possession – a much more challenging 4th-n-5 situation at the Scarlet Blight 15.  Rather than follow conventional football wisdom by taking the 3-points via the chip shot FG conversion with 9 minutes and change left on the clock then turn control of the game back to Doc’s D, Fitz reprises his Riverboat Gambler alter ego once again; and, this time, with the game’s outcome now on the line more than ever.  Thorson receives the long snap from center in his standard shotgun position, sees WR Flynn Nagel running a drag route into the open short middle zone sans any cover DB then tosses a simple pitch-n-catch straight into his target receiver’s mitts for a 10 yard completion that resets the LOS at the home team’s 5 yard line.  The Riverboat Gambler collects his second 4th down conversion pot of the current possession.  On the very next down, the 7th of the offensive series, True Frosh RB Isaiah Bowser receives the handoff from Thorson, sprints into and through an off tackle seam in the left side of the LOS and rambles 5 yards untouched to paydirt scoring the go-ahead TD for the ‘Cats at the 8:12 mark of Q4.    
However the Gambler still has one more hand to play, this time on a 2-point PAT conversion attempt that would provide the Wildcats a 3-point lead that may prove significant if Doc’s D fails to hold the line against the Scarlet Blights’ next offensive series following this scoring drive.  Thorson accepts the long snap from his OC then drifts to his right waiting for a receiver to get open just behind the goal line.  WR Flynn Nagel executes a short inside curl from his right slot position into the short middle zone and the settles into a slim seam between two LBs one yard into the RU end zone.  A now-confident CT delivers a chest high 95 MPH fastball to Mr. Nagel who makes a clean grab with his hands for the 2-point PAT conversion, while the two cover LBs on either side of Flynn flail at the laser beam-like dart as it zips untouched between them to its intended target.  The successful PAT conversion makes it 3 consecutive pots collected by the Gambler.  Nice haul.

A True Letdown
Without a doubt, last Saturday’s bug tussle between the Wildcats and the Scarlet Blights was not QB Clayton Thorson’s finest hour, despite applying his quarterbacking talents against what had been for most of the 2018 season, the B1G’s most porous of defense.  However, I’ll give credit where credit is due as it pertains to the Wildcats’ primary offensive playmaker, which still remains Mr. Thorson, and the degree upon which he is depended, game in and game out, to carry a Herculean volume of the Wildcats’ offensive water by his coaches, his teammates and his fans.  That’s a monumentally heavy load for any young man no more than 22 years old to bear. 

I truly don’t have a clue regarding the fundamental causes that so negatively affected CT’s usually reliable and accurate passing capabilities; but something made the Senior QB badly miss open receiver after open receiver for entire portions of last Saturday’s game against the Scarlet Blights.  One might call this latest example of diminished field play a temporary aberration, or perhaps more appropriately, a reoccurring inconsistency, but whatever it might be called, I’ll chalk it up to the fact this young man remains just that – a fallible young man who is susceptible to this sport’s vagaries and foibles as most young man would be when handed the responsibility to lead by example so frequently and in the most angst-filled gridiron situations one could ever imagine.

Then when one considers how remarkably efficient and dependably consistent his decision making and passing accuracy was during that pressure cooker scenario of “The Drive” against the Nebby BugEaters just one week ago and recognize the simple fact that he remains a work in progress in his attempts to reprise that high level of pigskin playmaking, his “A” Game, so to speak, the following weekend, and the one after that and the next one after that.  Consequently, it’s no wonder that Mr. Thorson might stumble a bit and underscore that salient point he remains an imperfect human being on any particular Saturday, like he did last Saturday, and we fans have the luxury to categorize it as a Letdown.  And if it was, in fact, a True Letdown, so be it.  I’m willing to give the young man a kitchen pass regarding his previous miscues then proffer him the wherewithal to mentally turn the page and move on.  After all, there still a hellova lot of weighty water to carry.

Indeed, this performance wasn’t anything near what I expected from the ‘Cats when battling the weak sister Scarlet Blights; but nevertheless, a Win is a Win and will remain a Win in future days as we review the 2018 season and ruminate on its particular highs and lows.  And like a transient wave of crests and troughs, we too should move ourselves beyond the previous contest to address the next challenge, which happens to be the Wisky Drunkards – the reputed Biggest, Baddest Hound in the B1G West Division kennel, and NU’s chief rival in the new millennium. 

Time to tighten your chinstraps fellas.  This is the B1G ONE!

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 HailToPurple.com.

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