Cats and dogs are supposed to loathe each other. Instead, these ‘Cats and dogs (Huskies) awkwardly pawed the air surrounding their respective perches on comfy couches, too complacent to get up and actually fight each other.
In short, neither Northwestern (0-2) nor Northern Illinois (2-0) impressed in a downright ugly 23-15 in-state matchup, the teams’ first meeting since 2005. Essentially, everything that could have gone wrong for the Wildcats went wrong.
The game opened with the national anthem sung by hometown hero Jim Cornelison, the Blackhawks’ anthem singer. It pretty much all went downhill from there: Both offenses went three-and-out on their first possessions and the first half ended in a tie score, 0-0.
Some very questionable play-calling resulted in senior quarterback Trevor Siemian throwing 43 passes, averaging 7.5 yards per catch, and the running backs carrying the ball 37 times, averaging 1.9 yards per catch.
Siemian performed well, proving he may be able to carry this offense without the help of graduated quarterback Kain Colter, if the senior recovers from an apparent knee injury suffered in the fourth quarter. He finished the day 27-for-41 with 268 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Siemian seemed to show better pocket presence than he has in the past, but couldn’t string together many successful drives due to dropped passes and an offensive line that could not hold back an aggressive Northern Illinois front.
When Northwestern’s receivers were good, they were very good. Fifth-year senior Kyle Prater caught his first touchdown of his Northwestern career (yes, we found him!) while veterans Dan Vitale, Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary combined for 10 catches and 157 yards. Junior Youngblood-Ary even caught a last-minute touchdown from junior quarterback Zach Oliver, who came in for Siemian after his hit.
But the Northwestern offense was plagued by penalties, a fate it escaped last week when it was the only FBS team to record no accepted penalties last week against Cal. Against NIU, Northwestern racked up nine penalties for 93 yards, many of which halted any chance the offense had of getting near the end zone.
Eight of Northwestern’s drives ended in punts, not necessarily a negative with junior punter Chris Gradone in the backfield: He averaged 42 yards and kicked three punts within the 20-yard line, not back for a first-time official starter.
But with only seven points on the board going into the fourth quarter, the offense could have stood to trade punts for kickoffs.
The defense did all it could on its own, recording two sacks and forcing quite a few three-and-outs. But ultimately, missed opportunities told the story of this game. Luckily for NU’s team (and perhaps its fans), next week is a bye week, giving head coach Pat Fitzgerald some time to work with his players before the ‘Cats take on Western Illinois on Sept. 20, the first time most Northwestern students will be back on campus.
The entire Northwestern defense: Northwestern’s defense proved to be a unit former linebacker Fitz could actually be proud of. Junior defensive lineman Deonte Gibson recorded one sack for a loss of 11 yards, while senior linebacker Collin Ellis and junior lineman Dean Lowry combined for another in the fourth quarter to throw some momentum back Northwestern’s way. The entire unit combined for 200 tackles on the day, carrying NU through to the fourth quarter to give the 'Cats a chance to come back after a two-point conversion.
The reemergence of Kyle Prater: Remember how everyone was asking what happened to Kyle Prater, the ‘Cats’ one-time top recruit? Is he hurt? Is he a ghost? Is he actually on the team? Well, never fear, naysayers, because we found him. Seven times and once for a touchdown, the first of his career. He totaled 87 yards on the day for an average of 12.4 yards per catch. He needed to have a big game today (and frankly, a big season, too) and he did not disappoint.
Zach Oliver: Come on, you knew he was going to make this list. He comes in the game in the last three minutes and throws for 54 yards and a touchdown? Even the ever-growing skeptic in me was moved.
The true freshmen: There are some who would say not to trust first-year running backs with the ball. But not Northwestern. Justin Jackson led all Northwestern rushers today with 12 carries for 52 yards. He also chipped in two receptions for 19 yards. Though that doesn’t seem like much, his contributions will help Northwestern down the road. Fellow freshman Miles Shuler (who wears number 5, the vacated jersey left by Venric Mark. Coincidence?) caught five passes for 37 yards, showing himself to be a favorite of Siemian.
Miles Shuler’s drop: There were many, many devastating drops I could have chosen, but this was by far the worst and most glaring. Shuler, a Northwestern newcomer, had a chance to put the Wildcats up 7-0 with just under 13 minutes left in the second half. Instead, after completing three earlier passes, he lets a beautiful Siemian pass slip literally right through his fingers. At the end of the game, when Northwestern was down 23-7 in the fourth quarter and had just allowed Da’Ron Brown to catch another deep ball for a touchdown, your mind wanders and you wonder how this team could have fallen so far.
Northwestern’s offensive line: In a word, the O-line was atrocious. No amount of substitutions was going to make up for the fact that they allowed Siemian to be sacked five times and hit twice. And a roughing-the-passer penalty called against NIU that dealt Siemian his injury late in the game never should have happened.