There are games that make you sweat, cringe, palpitate, nauseate and thank the ghost of Otto Graham that Northwestern won. Then there are games like Northwestern’s season opener at Syracuse, a 42-41 victory for NU that redefined the Cardiac ‘Cats nickname.
Northwestern’s offense got off to a tepid start in the first quarter but the defense was able to limit two prime touchdown opportunities for the Orange to field goals. Then running back Venric Mark returned a Syracuse punt 82 yards across the Carrier Dome for a touchdown, giving NU a 7-6 lead. But Mark’s touchdown, which was Northwestern’s first punt return for a score since 2005, failed to ignite the Wildcat offense.
Then things started to get hotter in the Carrier Dome. With Syracuse leading 13-7, Wildcats cornerback Quinn Evans hit Syracuse wide receiver Marcus Sales hard enough for him to cough up the ball he just reeled in. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo picked it out of midair and brought it just outside of the Syracuse 20 on a 49-yard return. On the next play, quarterback Kain Colter found Mark for a 21-yard touchdown pass to give Northwestern a 21-13 lead, a lead they would take into the half after offsetting turnovers.
Syracuse started the third quarter at its own 28-yard line and attempted a lateral swing pass that was bobbled for a fumble. Again, Ariguzo picked up the ball and, after a bit of hesitation, ran it in to give NU a 28-13 lead. Northwestern scored again on their next drive after three straight completions, 46 rushing yards from Mark and a 1-yard rushing touchdown from Colter.
But like Wildcat fans have seen all too often, the big lead began to slip away. Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib found Sales for a seven yard touchdown strike and then dropped a 50-yard bomb on the NU secondary to wide receiver Jeremiah Kobina to bring the Orange within eight points at the start of the fourth quarter, 35-27.
Northwestern’s offense remained silent as Nassib and Kobina found each other for a touchdown again on the following drive with 6:32 left in the game. However, they failed their two-point conversion and NU maintained a 35-33 lead.
But after the Wildcats’ second three-and-out of the game, the Orange scored again to take 41-35 lead on another Nassib touchdown pass, this one a 20-yarder to Christopher Clark.
With 2:40 left, it was not Colter, but sophomore Trevor Siemian that head coach Pat Fitzgerald chose to lead the Wildcats’ comeback effort. Facing a third and 14 with less than a minute left, Siemian scrambled for seven yards and drew a controversial personal foul, when he was hit by a Syracuse defender while running out of bounds. With his offense at the 9-yard line, Siemian dropped in pass to wide receiver Demetrius Fields in the left corner of the end zone, which he reeled in to give NU the lead once more, 42-41. Syracuse could not score again and Northwestern earned a victory in their season opener for the eighth consecutive season.
Four things we learned
1. Venric Mark is scary good.
We saw flashes of Mark’s kick-return brilliance last season, but if Saturday’s game proves to be indicative of his entire season, the Wildcats have a dangerous weapon in both the backfield and on special teams.
Mark rushed for 82 total yards on 14 attempts against Syracuse, averaging just under six yards per carry. The rest of the team, by comparison, rushed for a net total of 42 yards. Forty of those yards were by Colter.
On special teams, Mark returned two punts for 134 yards and 3 kickoffs for 49 yards, setting a new school record.
While Mark’s rushing total will not land him on any Heisman watch lists, it cannot be understated how important his influence in the backfield can be to Northwestern. They struggled to maintain a solid running game after Mike Trumpy tore his ACL last season. And his prowess in the return game sends a clear message to the Big Ten: Kick to him at your own risk.
2. Old habits die hard.
A win is a win is a win, but it’s disconcerting to see the Wildcats fall into the same traps they set for themselves all last season. Strong openings like the ones NU had against Illinois (28-10 in the third quarter) and Michigan (24-14 at half) led to losses (38-35 against Illinois, 42-24 against Michigan). They cost the Wildcats’ critical wins in a season defined by inconsistency.
Northwestern was able to pull out the victory in the end, but not before surrendering a 22-point lead that should have sealed the deal against Syracuse. If Northwestern hopes to improve from last season’s 6-7 record and win its first bowl game since the Truman administration, this will need to stop before it bites them again.
3. The secondary is still of primary concern.
Other than QB Dan Persa’s Achilles’ heel, Northwestern’s greatest weakness in 2011 was the troubling play of the defensive secondary. On Saturday, the secondary once again threatened to derail the Wildcats.
Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib put on a passing clinic at the Carrier Dome, throwing for a school-record 470 yards and scoring four touchdowns through the air while the Northwestern secondary looked overmatched, outplayed and at times desperate to stop the onslaught of deep passes that nearly cost NU the game.
While the season is still young, if the secondary cannot get its act together, the fearsome Big Ten quarterbacks that Northwestern will face down the road like Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase will have a field day at the Wildcats’ expense.
4. Northwestern needs to turn up the pressure.
One of the reasons Nassib was able to pass for as many yards as he did was the lack of consistent pressure put on him by the Northwestern defense. The Wildcats only sacked Nassib once and consistently gave his wide receivers ample opportunity to stretch the NU defense. Because of the lack of secondary depth, Northwestern’s linemen and linebackers will have to compensate by getting to the opposing QB early and often. If they don’t, it’s going to be a long season for the Wildcat faithful.
Northwestern opens its home schedule this Saturday, Sept. 8 against the Vanderbilt Commodores at 7 p.m. Central Standard Time.
Like NU, Vanderbilt is no longer the doormat, brainiac team in an elite conference, as the Commodores gave their SEC counterpart, No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks, a scare on Thursday. They lost 17-13, due in part to a missed pass interference call on the Gamecocks.
It’s hard to predict how this game will pan out, especially with the uncertain status of Colter, but one thing is for sure: It’ll be a lot more entertaining than it would have been 10 years ago.