Northwestern (2-0, 0-0) got all it could handle from the Eastern Michigan Eagles (0-2, 0-0), but placekicker Stefan Demos nailed a 49 yard field goal with just six seconds left in the game to secure a 27-24 win for the Wildcats. Although NU started off strong, building a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, they let off the gas a bit as EMU moved the ball effectively in the second half with a strong running game. Eastern Michigan eventually tied the game at 24 with 2:40 left in the fourth quarter, but Stephen Simmons returned the ensuing kickoff 25 yards and QB Mike Kafka led a drive that set up the game-winning field goal.
To say that this game was a disappointment for Northwestern is an understatement: NU came in as 20-point favorites after purely out-manning FCS opponent Towson in week one, while EMU lost to a one-dimensional Army team at home. In this game, though, the Eagles made the necessary adjustments in the second half and worked their way back thanks to a couple of big plays that went in their favor.
In the third quarter with a 21-3 lead, NU looked as though it held EMU on third down and three, dropping feisty RB Dwayne Priest for a one yard loss (along with an offensive holding call). Instead, NU's Brian Peters was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, giving Eastern Michigan a new set of downs. That turned out to be the spark that the Eagles needed; they would then drive for their first offensive TD of the game to cut it into Northwestern's lead.
After NU went on a time-consuming drive that ended with a very short field goal (Northwestern had the ball at the two yard line), EMU once again appeared to fizzle: NU forced them to punt from their own 30 after a three-and-out. Instead, the short punt ended up hitting a Northwestern player running down the field (which was confirmed on replay), and an EMU player jumped on the ball to recover at NU's 35 yard line. The Eagles promptly punched the ball in to cut the Northwestern lead to a touchdown.
Then, on the next drive, the 'Cats were once again driving when Kafka was hit while throwing, forcing a bad throw that was intercepted. Eastern Michigan then ran for 68 yards on 7 carries to drive and tie the game with under three minutes left in regulation. At this point, three major errors by NU directly led to EMU tying the game and even though the Wildcats would get a chance to win, things were looking dim.
Thankfully, Simmons came through with a great return and NU drove the ball enough to score, getting a first-and-ten on the EMU 25 yard line. Then came two consecutive NU penalties that pushed the 'Cats back to the 50 yard line (holding and pass interference), but Kafka looked to his go-to guy, WR Andrew Brewer, who caught his only two passes on the day for 18 yards to move NU back to striking distance.
Player of the Game:
P/PK Stefan Demos (3-for-3 XPs, 2-for-2 FGs, including game-winner, 57.3 yards per kickoff, 35.3 yards per punt, 2-of-3 punts inside 20) Demos came up with the first clutch kick of his placekicking career, easily nailing a 49-yard FG with six seconds left in regulation; he is now 3-of-3 on field goals for his career. He also handled all other kicking duties in game two of NU's 2009 season, including all kickoffs and punting. He continued to do a solid job on punts, placing two of his three attempts inside the opponent's 20 yard line. The last game-winning Northwestern field goal came in 2001 against Michigan State (although there have been some game-tying FGs since then), so Demos deserves kudos for succeeding in a high-pressure situation.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
RB Stephen Simmons (13 carries for 73 yards and 2 touchdowns, 1 reception for 15 yards, 5 kickoff returns for 108 yards) Simmons found paydirt twice for the 'Cats and also had the great return that set up NU's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter. He had a few nice runs and showed why he is the starting running back in Fitz's RB-by-committee ground game.
LB Ben Johnson (4 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 interception return for touchdown) One can't leave Johnson off of this list as he had a 70 yard interception that he returned for a TD in the second quarter to give NU a 21-0 lead.
What to Work on:
Run Defense: Northwestern gave up an average of 5.4 yards per rush to EMU, and the Eagles' primary running back Priest had 127 yards and a TD on just 17 carries. The EMU offensive front routinely opened up large holes for their runners as NU failed to put together an effective defense against the Eagles' pro set offense. Although QB Andy Schmitt went 20-for-28 passing, EMU averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt passing as they stuck with mostly short and high-percentage passes. The real damage was done by the running game, most of which came in the second half after the Eagles made their offensive adjustments.
Penalties: Although NU only had 5 penalties, one of those sparked Eastern Michigan's comeback, and two of them almost cost NU the chance to hit the game winning FG by pushing them back to the 50 yard line. Expect Coach Fitzgerald to harp on disciplined play this week, especially with NU hitting the road for the first time in 2009 next Saturday.
Second Half Play: Last week, Fitz chided his team for letting off the gas a bit in the second half, although it didn't affect the final outcome. This week, though, Fitz has a lot of work ahead to improve NU's second half performance after they blew a three-score lead against a bad opponent. There were no second half adjustments as the 'Cats regressed on both sides of the ball. There were errors by NU players that directly led to EMU's three TDs. Thankfully, there was enough left in the tank to pull off the win, but it didn't provide much reassurance for NU fans.
Attendance: Once again, NU failed to reach 20,000 on the turnstiles (19,239) even with the return of NUMB and no holiday weekend to lower the turnout.
Passing: Despite completing 6 fewer passes than his opponent's QB, Mike Kafka threw for 10 more yards (158 for Kafka, 148 for Schmitt). Kafka still hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in 2009. Also, his one interception versus EMU came on a play when he was hit while delivering the football.
Freshman Regression: Just one week after a stellar true freshman debut, RB Arby Fields had 7 carries for just 5 yards and a lost fumble. He has shown the talent to be successful, but needs to improve his reliability.
Andrew Brewer: The senior captain didn't have a reception until two consecutive catches that came right before NU's game-winning FG, proving that he's Kafka's go-to-guy in 2009.
Northwestern faced a scare but persevered, pulling out a win thanks to a respectable final drive and long field goal, even after blowing an 18-point halftime lead. Although fans expected and would like to have seen a huge Wildcat victory, like in week one, the fact is that Northwestern will face trying situations and it's comforting to see NU's ability to pull out a close win.
EMU's head coach Ron English definitely has things moving in the right direction and made a lot of good adjustments in the second half that NU failed to match. Thankfully, in just his second game handling placekicking duties, Stefan Demos nailed the long go-ahead field goal and the 'Cats have established an important special teams weapon. Next up is a dangerous trip to up-and-coming Syracuse, where the 'Cats must improve on a few things to improve to 3-0 prior to Big Ten play.