Northwestern’s first football game is more than four months away, but already the Wildcats know exactly what they must do to improve on last year’s 6-6 record.
“We had four opportunities [Duke, Michigan, Purdue, Iowa] to finish games [last year] that we didn’t,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald.
With this in mind, the emphasis in spring practice, according to redshirt freshman safety David Arnold, was on “finishing” games.
“Finish. We have to finish,” echoed senior wide receiver Rasheed Ward.
The Cats will not find out until the Aug. 30 opener against Syracuse if the emphasis on “finishing” games will pay off. Until then, Northwestern will have to settle with a positive performance by the team in Saturday’s spring game.
The offense, operating in a no-huddle, spread formation, dominated the first half. “The offense started fast, moved the ball,” Fitzgerald said. Senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, senior running back Tyrell Sutton and other starters only played one series but that was long enough to show how good the first-team offense can be if healthy: Sutton had a 22-yard run and Bacher completed three passes. “We’re coming together really well. We have a new offense but I think we’re doing a good job,” Bacher said.
The offense’s success did not end once Bacher and Sutton checked out of the game. On the very next offensive possession, redshirt freshman quarterback Dan Persa led the team down the field and then found Ward in the end zone for a touchdown. Not to be outdone, junior quarterback Mike Kafka responded with a touchdown drive of his own. A 31-yard pass to junior wide receiver Andrew Brewer set up Ward’s second touchdown reception of the day.
On the scoring play, Kafka did his best Eli Manning impression, scrambling and eluding several tacklers before somehow getting the ball to Ward. “There is always room for improvement but I was consistent in my decisions and made the right moves,” Kafka said. Persa finished the day with seven receptions for 59 yards, while Kafka went seven catches for 70 yards.
Along with Ward, the other star of the day was senior running back Omar Conteh. “When they call my name I have to perform,” Conteh said with regards to his role as Sutton’s backup. With 111 yards on 16 carries, Conteh did indeed perform. Forty-one of his yards came on a touchdown run where Conteh bounced to the outside and then sprinted into the end zone.
Because of several injuries to the unit, Coach Fitzgerald did not blame the defense for the offense’s first-half dominance. “I handcuffed the defense, I pulled some of their guys out,” Fitzgerald said. Maybe the defense held themselves to a higher standard, because in the second half it turned the tables and controlled the game. The defense “came out [in the second half] and stiffened up and we didn’t allow a touchdown,” Fitzgerald said.
The main highlights on defense were made by redshirt freshmen: defensive end Vince Browne and safety David Arnold. Browne made several tackles and consistently pressured the quarterback. Arnold knocked down two passes, both of which were in the red zone. Earlier in the game, new defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz challenged Arnold and “asked if I made any plays in the game and I said no. So I went out and made some plays,” Arnold said. “I wish I would have caught them.”
The Wildcats know all too well that intercepting passes instead of just knocking them down often is the difference between a win and a loss. In the four close losses against Duke, Michigan, Purdue and Iowa, Northwestern did not register one interception, while their opponents had a combined 11.
The team is more than happy with how things went in the spring game but they are still focused on improving. “We have to focus on getting better,” Kafka said, and “stick it a little harder.” In other words, the Cats have to finish what they started.