Droll thing college football is, was the great writer's phrase, I believe. It is an inexplicable game. That contest Saturday, in the steady second-half rain in Evanston, took no real form, and did not develop into a signature that one could put down definitively on the page. It became a series of moments to make plays that apparently arrived haphazardly.
But Northwestern did what they had to do in those moments to win, containing Vanderbilt to a single field goal in the second half, and scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter to douse the Commodores, 23-13. It was a big home win over the academic school from the SEC—a reputation the Commodores are desperately working to prove camouflages the football character being established beneath.
I think from Vanderbilt's perspective, they learned their quarterback, Jordan Rogers, is not an especially accurate or high-percentage passer. Northwestern partisans may have discovered that Ryan Nassib, at Syracuse, is better than they'd thought. After Vanderbilt made that very fine, swift, game opening drive, crowned by a 22-yard touchdown pass to all-SEC wideout Jordan Matthews, the Commodores gained 6.6-yards a pass for the rest of the game, and did not score another touchdown.
Rodgers completed barely 52 percent and misfired in many of the big spots, with a few drops in between. Vanderbilt was 4-of-15 on third downs, just 26 percent. Northwestern's defense stymied the Dores' running game too, limiting Zac Stacy, a truly fine running back, to 36 yards on 13 attempts, 2.8 yards per carry. Vanderbilt's leading rusher was their quarterback, Rodgers, who had 51 yards on 15 carries, 3.4 yards on average. How do you explain that in the context of Northwestern football?
I think Eric Collins, the television play-by-play man for the Big Ten Network, gave it the best try. When Northwestern jumped on the football at Vanderbilt's 21-yard line with 1:47 to play, after senior defensive end Tyler Scott crashed through the middle of Vanderbilt's pass protection, and blasted the ball from Rodgers' control, Collins shouted wildly, "What has gotten into this Northwestern defense?"
There was no explanation for this defense causing a fumble inside their own red zone to end the first half, and then causing another to seal the game after begrudging only 86 yards in the offense the entire half. They simply made the big plays that Wildcats' fans had been conditioned to expect them to miss.
It is interesting to listen to coach Pat Fitzgerald doing and saying the opposite of what's being written and gossiped about regarding his team. It's a capacity you often hear in anecdotes explaining great coaches. I don't know if Fitzgerald is a great coach or not, but either he's acting like one until he believes it himself, or he has a fundamental insight into the psychology of his team.
Coming out of Syracuse, Fitzgerald's defense was being soundly thrashed from all quarters. Hetold everyone who would listen that Northwestern was ready for whatever Vanderbilt had. He trusted his defensive backs to stop what they couldn't stop the week before, and that everyone else on that side of the ball would be be in position to thwart an onslaught. The team did just that on Saturday.
Now, the reactive sports media is making their predictable re-evaluation of the Wildcats' defense, finding ways to say they're better than they'd thought. But Fitzgerald is there to counter, saying they aren't especially good just yet. A video posted over at "Lake the Posts" shows Fitzgerald talking to reporters after practice. He wasn't happy about the defense being less than malevolently physical against Vanderbilt, and the week of practice was being adjusted to instill that mindset.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, we got after it today," he responded to a question about the coach's role in drilling physicality into players. "I thought today was a very physical go. So, we'll see how we progress."
Northwestern must be glad this week's game against Boston College is in Evanston, though I doubt anyone inside the program is consciously thinking that way. The coasts are most often the sites of bad carnage for football teams traveling out of the interior. The Wildcats won last year in Chestnut Hill, Mass., but coming off a big non-conference win last week, a long road trip to play another non-conference game may have been a place to unconsciously flatten out.
The Wildcats should beat Boston College, a school both in a cyclical valley and carrying an 11-30 record against the Big Ten. But being the team that should win is not a guarantee of anything in college football. There are a few mechanisms to the Eagles' offense that could cause Northwestern's defense to stagger. First, they manage to run a lot of plays, and second, they throw a lot of short passes out of their one-back, three-wide west coast offense. Four of their five offensive linemen are back from last year, when it was largely a group of freshmen, and each weighs more than 300 pounds.
Vanderbilt moved the ball consistently when they used short throws to wide receivers and threw screen passes to running backs. Stacy went 55-yards on a screen in the fourth quarter that appeared to set Vanderbilt up for a go-ahead touchdown, though Northwestern's defense held them to a field goal.
BC fires short passes as an offensive principle, and one of their three running backs, Tahj Kimble, is the team's third leading receiver after two games. The Eagles had 537 yards of offense against Miami in Week 1, and their quarterback, Chase Rettig, has completed 58 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns against one interception. Tackling at the point of contact will be a key for Northwestern's defense to keep the short completions at short yardage.
Downfield, Rettig likes to target Alex Amidon, a small, fast wide receiver who makes things happen for the Eagles' offense. Amidon is averaging 15.5 yards a catch and 124 yards a game, with one touchdown reception through the first two. Each of the Wildacts' linebackers, corners, and safeties are going to have to be sturdy in their discipline and technique to limit BC's ball control and yardage.
Venric Mark has been a demon for Northwestern's offense: a fleet, iron framed little demon. He was billed as an "electric" punt returner, and projected as a good running back—if he could sweep around the ends—but he has been a powerhouse between the tackles, too. Mark retained the skills that made him a wide receiver his first two years in school and remains a nasty weapon for catching passes out of hybrid formations and routes.
The great broadcast analyst, Charles "Mega Mind" Davis, during a video segment at Fox College Football, highlighted Mark as a player to watch this weekend against BC. There are going to be holes and spaces on the field for Mark to get into with the football, Davis said. Going into Week 3, Mark is second nationally in all purpose yards per game, averaging 219.5.
Duke Johnson, a true freshman running back from Miami, broke two 50-yard touchdown runs against the Eagles in Week 1. Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter can be an explosive runner, too, either by design or on the scramble. Both Colter and Mark are more established, craftier players than Johnson was in the first game of his career. Both, then, could have a big day against Boston College's defense.
Though BC had been ranked in the top five in the nation against the run the last five seasons, that was not true of last years' team, which fell to 64th. This year's Eagles are replacing Luke Kuechly, the best linebacker in the country, and have a young defensive front for the second consecutive season. Miami went for 208 yards at 6.1 yards per carry against them.
The Wildcats will continue spreading their passes amongst a group of developing wide receivers. None of the wideouts have distinguished themselves individually, but four or five look capable of getting the work done, and seem to be almost interchangeable. Rashad Lawrence looks like he might have the most overall pop and big-play ability, and had a crucial downfield catch against Vanderbilt. BC is playing two-deep with unproven freshmen and sophomore defensive backs at nearly every spot. The one senior in the group is strong safety Jim Noel.
The wideouts should have all the motivation they need to make plays for their team, either catching or blocking, after Fitzgerald called them out during the week of practice. ‘‘We’ve got to catch the football,’’ Neil Hayes at the Sun-Times quoted Fitzgerald. ‘‘I don’t care where the ball is thrown—that’s what we put them on scholarship for, and I reminded them, it’s a $60,000 scholarship. Catch the ball.’’
Colter should be able to throw against BC's defense, even after a 42-yard, 7-for-15 game against Vanderbilt. Trevor Siemian, who was 10-of-16 for 91 yards, may have an opportunity to step in and find a rhythm with the offense, something he struggled for last week, as he continues to develop as the drop back, pocket quarterback of Northwestern's future.
It should be one of those beautiful early fall days along Chicago's lakefront, with a high temperature of 78 degrees, and breezes under 10 mph. I think Fitzgerald calls those "country club afternoons" around the campus. From high up at Ryan Field, you look over the university buildings, and the groves of trees still full of summer leaves, to the teal-blue line of Lake Michigan on the horizon, and far out to the south the skyscrapers of the metropolis rise up in a distant haze.