It was certainly an interesting start to the non-conference schedule for the ‘Cats football team — one that didn’t ruin the season but still created question marks. Following an easy dismantling of Towson and a far too close for comfort victory against Eastern Michigan, Northwestern left Syracuse’s Carrier Dome disappointed following a 37-34 loss.
As the Wildcats begin their Big Ten Conference schedule against Minnesota, there’s a lot of good to build on, but also some glaring negatives. Let’s go position by position and see where the ‘Cats stand.
Senior Mike Kafka gave the kind of performance through 58 minutes Saturday against Syracuse that made you forget the inconsistencies he displayed in the first two games: 35-42 for 390 yards and three touchdowns and even caught a 24-yard touchdown reception. Then with just under two minutes left in the 4th quarter, he threw the critical interception that called back to mind his 29-44 for 350 yards, interception and no touchdowns performance in the first two games. However, if the ‘Cats can get the Kafka from the Syracuse game, minus the crucial interception, he will give them a chance to win. The offense appeared to open up a little more last week, and Kafka took advantage, looking extremely accurate, especially outside the pocket. He also made big plays with his legs, keeping plays alive and running for a first down in the third quarter. Not to be forgotten, sophomore Dan Persa was effective as a running quarterback, even making a nice deep throw for a touchdown against Towson.
Without junior Stephen Simmons, the running game took a step back last week. Sophomore Jacob Schmidt took the majority of carries and picked up 30 yards on 10 carries. True freshman Arby Fields made the sole explosive running play, a 25-yard scamper in the second quarter, which begs asking why he didn’t get a carry after that. But through the first two games, the four halfback rotation worked very well, as each back brought something to the field. Simmons has explosive speed, Fields is a slash-and-dash style back, while Schmidt and fellow sophomore Scott Concannon provide the physical, down-hill running. This doesn’t include speedy sophomore Jeravin Matthews, who can provide a versatile halfback/wide receiver combo à la Percy Harvin once he returns from a knee injury. For the ‘Cats to be successful, this diverse and talented group needs to regenerate the production it had in the first two weeks.
Considering the talent the ‘Cats lost in Ross Lane, Eric Peterman, and Rasheed Ward, there were a lot of questions coming into the season. However, senior wide receiver Andrew Brewer has stepped up to become a #1 caliber target or Kafka. He’s made two explosive plays downfield, including one for 72 yards, and has been the big play threat on the outside. Sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore has worked the intermediate routes well, really becoming a safety valve for Kafka. Senior Zeke Markshausen has been the quintessential slot receiver, and has done a great job working the hash marks and the middle of the defense. Dunsmore and Markshausen led the ‘Cats against Syracuse with 18 combined catches for 167 yards and a touchdown. Add in redshirt freshman Demetrius Fields, who has done well underneath, and the receiving group hasn’t really missed a beat. Look for junior Sidney Stewart to step in and contribute as well once he returns from an injury.
Penalties have really marred the pretty strong play of this group. False starts and holding at bad times have held the offense back a little, especially last week. They also had a hard time with the penetration Syracuse defense which hurt in the running game, though I wouldn’t put the four sacks on them because it appeared some of those were coverage sacks. Syracuse wasn’t able to get consistent pressure on Kafka, and Kafka was virtually clean in the first two games. If they can cut down on the penalties, this group will succeed as a whole.
This group really misses John Gill. His run-stuffing presence in the middle last year really kept lineman off the linebackers and allowed him to get a push up the middle, which allowed senior star defensive end Corey Wootton to get the pressure off the edge because the quarterback was unable to step up in the pocket. Syracuse senior quarterback Greg Paulus was able to step up in the pocket all night, bypassing the outside rush and make plays down the field. Wootton is slowly coming back from a knee injury, but you can tell he’s still not 100 percent. He doesn’t appear to have the confidence to make the inside rush move to keep lineman off-balance, which makes his speed rush even more effective. Once he gets that confidence, you’ll start to see the dominant Wootton. But what’s important for this group is for defensive tackles junior Corbin Bryant and senior Marshall Thomas to hold their ground inside so Wootton and speedy and powerful sophomore defensive end Vince Browne can hassle quarterbacks.
It is not fair to put this on them because it has been a defense-wide problem, but the tackling has been poor since the 4th quarter against Eastern Michigan. Running backs have consistently turned 3-yard losses into 2-yard gains, 2-yard gains into 5-yard gains and so on. It’s those kinds of demoralizing plays that hurt the defense by keeping them on the field longer. While they have been very good on third down (Syracuse was 2-12 on third down), they give up the solid gains on first and second down, which kept Syracuse out of third down situations on their scoring drives. Once the tackling improves, the defense can force the third and longs where the defense has been most effective.
Without star senior cornerback Sherrick McManis, Syracuse’s senior wide receiver Mike Williams ran wild in the secondary, making 11 receptions for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Northwestern couldn’t find an answer for him all night and he torched them for a monster performance. Senior safeties Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips have provided boosts with their leadership and ability to help out in the running game. Coupled with Phillips interception which stopped Syracuse’s scoring opportunity at the end of the second quarter, the secondary has played relatively well. With the return of McManis, the unit should continue to be a strength.
Dating back to last season (especially at the Alamo Bowl), special teams have been a point of concern. A few big kickoff returns and a crucial missed extra point allowed Syracuse to go only for an extra point instead of a two-point conversion after their final touchdown. The blocked field goal was a critical point in the game, but the missed extra point and lost field position because of porous kick coverage turned out to be far more damaging. Special teams have to get better for this team to compete in the Big Ten.
With the Big Ten season approaching and only one more out-of-conference game against Miami of Ohio, the ‘Cats have a lot of holes to fill. The running backs will have to be healthier and more consistent, while the defense and special teams must live up to their true potential. The defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs have all underperformed and it has shown. With Minnesota coming to town on Saturday, look for the defense to capitalize on the Golden Gophers’ poor rushing attack by going after the quarterback and finally dominating the line of scrimmage.