Saturday was a rather frustrating day for Northwestern fans. The Cats needed a late field goal to escape with a victory against Eastern Michigan, who entered the game as a 20-point underdog.
NU led 21-0 in the second quarter and 21-3 at the half, but EMU mounted a serious comeback in the second half, tying the game with just under three minutes left in the game.
While it's good that NU was able to escape with a win, there were several annoying and worrisome things that happened during the game.
The box score says that the Cats were called for five penalties for 56 yards, but one of them hurt significantly.
The most painful penalty was the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the middle of the third quarter.
Northwestern had just stopped EMU for a loss on a 3rd and three. Instead of forcing EMU to punt, the personal foul gave them an automatic first down. Eastern Michigan ended up scoring a touchdown after getting a second chance on that drive.
There were a few other penalties in the fourth quarter that slowed NU down but weren't nearly as disastrous.
The first was a holding penalty on a first and ten after NU took over on their own 47. While the Cats ended up picking up a first down, the drive ended at EMU's 23 after an interception.
Northwestern also committed two penalties on their game-winning drive that made things harder than they had to be.
NU had driven the ball to the EMU 23 yard line, well within field goal range. However, on the next play Al Netter was called for holding, and on the very next play Demetrius Fields was called for offensive pass interference.
Suddenly the Cats had a 1st and thirty five on the 50 yard line. Luckily they were able to get eighteen of those yards back and Stefan Demos was able to make the 49 yard game-winning field goal.
NU was the victim of two very bad breaks that made the game a lot more interesting than it should have been.
The first bad bounce came early in the fourth quarter. Northwestern had just stopped EMU at their own thirty. On the ensuing punt, disaster struck.
The punt was shorter than anticipated and fell into a pack of players in front of return man Brendan Smith. The refs ruled that the ball hit Andrew Brewer (who was also deep on the play) and was recovered by Eastern Michigan. The play was confirmed on review.
This gave EMU the ball a first down at NU's thirty five yard line. They later scored on the drive.
The other stroke of poor luck came on Northwestern's next drive. After a good return and a few successful plays, the Cats faced a third and fifteen on EMU's 23 yard line.
Mike Kafka had an open receiver near the goal line, but he was hit while trying to deliver the pass. The ball floated horribly off-target and was intercepted by EMU. Besides costing the Cats a shot at a field goal, EMU went on to score on their next drive.
Even without some other issues the cost Northwestern, these two plays had a major impact on the score.
Despite some solid plays, Northwestern struggled to consistently move the ball. They posted 185 yards on the ground and generally had success throwing the ball, but they finished with only 343 total yards.
Their conservative play-calling played a major role in that. Even with the flurry of passes late in the game, the Cats had twice as many runs as passes (48 to 24).
There is an even bigger disparity if you look at the middle portion of the game. The Cats attempted only 5 passes and ran it 21 times between their third touchdown early in the second quarter and EMU's second touchdown in the middle of the fourth quarter. They scored three points during this stretch.
The half back sweep was an especially ineffective play. NU was thrown for a sizeable loss on that play on three seperate occasions.
They didn't exactly try to stretch the field with regularity when they threw it either. Kafka mostly threw it to receivers in the five to ten yard range and only averaged 6.6 yards per attempt.
I hope that Northwestern doesn't use this offensive approach in future games. They don't appear to be a good enough running team to make that kind of approach work. They were nursing a three score lead against an inferior opponent and still couldn't maintain the lead.
While they had some success running the ball, they weren't particularly consistent, especially when Fields and Scott Concannon were in the game. They need to throw the ball more frequently to be successful against FBS opponents.
Outside of a few isolated plays, I wasn't too worried about the pass defense. Even with Sherrick McManis out of the lineup, Eastern Michigan was limited to a short passing attack that was very screen heavy. EMU averaged only 5.3 yards per passing attempt.
The run defense was an entirely different story though. Dwayne Priest had a huge game, averaging 7.5 yards on his seventeen carries. Priest consistently found large running lanes and took advantage of them.
I don't know how else to say it, a team that is trying to qualify for a quality bowl game can not give up that kind of yardage to an inferior opponent.
That's about all I can say about this game. Even though a lot of things went wrong for Northwestern, in the end it still goes in the win column.
NU clearly has talent. Kafka has looked sharp throwing the ball, they have some playmakers on defense, and their runningbacks appear to be good enough to give them some balance.
However, they will need to polish their play quite a bit to guarantee that they play thirteen games this year.