Northwestern is off to a 2-0 start to the 2009 season and has racked up 58 first half points while allowing just 10 in the same period.
Although the Wildcats let up a bit in the second half of the first game against FCS opponent Towson, they had enough in the tank to cruise to a 47-14 victory while rolling 71 of their players onto the field throughout the game.
But in week two, when NU let off the gas, things got a bit scary as Eastern Michigan mounted a second half comeback to tie the game at 24 with just 2:40 left on the clock.
Even though NU pulled out the win thanks to Demos' long field goal with six ticks left in regulation, the fact that EMU had the game tied so late is rather disconcerting to Wildcats fans.
The 'Cats' task gets tougher over the next few weeks, and NU better prepare itself as they head to New York to face Syracuse, who took fellow Big Ten member Minnesota to overtime in week one before suffering their first loss of the year.
Although Syracuse has been down in recent years (including last year when NU rolled 30-10 in both teams' opener), they have a new attitude under new head coach Doug Marrone and Duke basketball player turned starting QB Greg Paulus.
So, we'll take a look at what Northwestern needs to do to get rolling again like they managed to do in the first halves of the first two games in 2009.
Open Up the Playbook
Coach Fitzgerald and his coordinators (Mike Hankwitz and Mick McCall) have rightly been holding the vast majority of the NU playbook close to the chest in NU's first two games. On offense, NU has run it over twice as much as it has thrown it—through two games NU has 102 rushes to just 46 pass attempts.
And QB Mike "Crazy Legs" Kafka, known for his running prowess after his 217 yard performance against Minnesota last year, has had a very limited number of designed running plays and just 11 rushing attempts (one of which was a sack, while most of the rest were scrambles on passing plays). It's fairly obvious that Northwestern was intently focused on making it through the first two games by keeping the ball on the ground.
Northwestern got quite a scare against EMU when it tallied just six second half points in trying to skate by on a reduced number of plays. Now, against some tougher competition, the 'Cats must open things up to even stay in the ballgame.
Syracuse has a big nose tackle in Arthur Jones who will be off to the NFL after he completes this, his senior year, so NU can't expect to run it up the gut as often as it has and maintain success. In order to continue in their winning ways, the Wildcat offense needs to look vastly different this Saturday, at least in terms of play calling.
Play of the Defensive Front
NU fans were very excited about the defense going into 2009 and rightly so, it was a unit that returned eight starters and many more contributors from the unit that gave up just about 20 points per game last year (an 11 point improvement from the prior season).
DE Corey Wootton was an animal, and even after knee surgery was an All-American candidate, and is expected to be a high NFL draft pick. But the defense has been relatively unimpressive so far, giving up 19 points per game against two lowly offenses that had no business moving the ball as well as they did.
The NU defense has racked up just three sacks so far, after leading the Big Ten in this category last year. Army had seven sacks against EMU, while NU had just one (and never really got close to another).
The 'Cats' run defense gave up 5.4 yards per carry against Eastern Michigan as the defensive front was routinely parted by EMU's OL throughout the game, but particularly in the second half. And that was with Northwestern's starters in the game basically the entire way.
The defense, particularly the line, must step it up in coming weeks or else face being run on early and often. Syracuse has a talented combo of RBs in Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey who have combined for 185 yards through two weeks (with one of those games being against stout Penn State) and are averaging 3.7 yards per carry (impressive considering that unfavorable matchup versus PSU).
After that, Minnesota has some talented RBs who are racking up the yards (their top two RBs are averaging just under five yards per carry). And things don't get any easier when NU travels to Purdue who feature a breakout Sophomore, Ralph Bolden, who has gone nuts and has 357 yards and four touchdowns in just two games (and a 7.1 yards per carry average).
Thankfully, defensive coordinator Hankwitz should have some things up his sleeve that NU hasn't revealed through two weeks, which should help a little. But the NU front seven must tackle better, get off the blocks, and live up to the reputation that they built for themselves last season.
Second Half Play
Finishing the game has been a bugaboo for Coach Fitz after taking over at Northwestern in 2006. There was the blown 35-point third quarter lead against MSU in his first season. In 2007, there were three blown fourth quarter leads (in addition to a game where NU had multiple shots at a lead-taking score in the second half but failed to convert).
This season there is the fact that NU's first two opponents have outscored the Wildcats 28-16 (against EMU, NU had just six second half points) in the second half.
First of all, there just haven't been many adjustments, neither by the NU coaching staff in its schemes nor by the players who just haven't shown the same fire in the final halves. On offense, McCall has stuck with his run-first approach to try and bleed the clock away. On defense, the 'Cats have stuck with the initial plan despite facing offenses that changed their approach (look at EMU's second half runs, in particular).
It's also apparent that both the players and coaches "took their foot off the gas" in both games so far this year; NU out-manned Towson in week one, but faced a significant challenge against an FBS opponent in week two.
Over the next two weeks, facing a BCS conference opponent on the road followed by the Big Ten opener, such a second half showing will almost definitely result in an NU loss.
Hopefully the leaders of this team both on the sideline and on the field can turn it up in practice and in the game in order to keep any momentum built in the first half of play.
The 'Cats will need to play a full 60 minutes starting now.
As noted above, NU went to great lengths not to reveal much of their playbook through two weeks, so being able to go with different plays should help the Wildcats on both sides of the football in future weeks.
After a week two scare, NU should have plenty of reasons to stay focused throughout the game, come out to play, and secure the win in the second half of future games. This week's trip to Syracuse will be a real test for the Wildcats as the Orange have a few big playmakers who have NFL talent and can make NU pay for any mistakes; the game also marks NU's first road trip of the season, which is never easy.