Northwestern (2-1, 0-0) went on the road for the first time in 2009 and fell to Syracuse (1-2) in a shootout and a heartbreaker for the 'Cats by a final score of 34-37.
The Wildcats got off to a slow start, falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter, partially thanks to a lost fumble on NU's first play from scrimmage in the game, which Syracuse promptly turned into a touchdown (after the Orange scored a field goal on their opening drive).
The 'Cats came roaring back in the second quarter, though, going on three sustained touchdown drives that temporarily gave NU a 21-17 lead before the Orange tacked on another TD before the half.
NU once again put on an offensive showing in the second half, eventually taking a 34-27 lead after QB Mike Kafka's third TD pass on the night (he ended up accounting for all five of NU's touchdowns).
Syracuse drove down the field once again to tie the game at 34 (NU's Stefan Demos had missed the extra point on what would be Northwestern's final touchdown), and after exchanging punts, NU looked to have a chance to drive down the field and win the game.
Unfortunately, Kafka made his worst throw of the night, forcing a pass into a group of Syracuse defenders, which ended up being the interception that set up SU's game-winning field goal.
Despite that costly mistake, Kafka had quite an evening: 35-of-42 passing for 390 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT; 13 rushes for -7 yards, 1 TD; and 1 reception for 24 yards, 1 TD.
The touchdown reception came off of a throw from WR (and former QB) Andrew Brewer after a Kafka lateral, which made Kafka the first Big Ten player to account for at least one touchdown passing, rushing, and receiving since Penn State's Zack Mills in 2004.
But in the end it was a very tough game for Northwestern: one that was winnable at the end despite all of the errors earlier in the game (like two lost fumbles and generally poor defense) that was eventually lost thanks to one costly throw.
Syracuse, meanwhile, came up with the win that they were looking for to finally begin to turn that program around.
An item of note is that the injury bug did hit Northwestern hard going into this game: starting CB Sherrick McManis, LB Nate Williams, RB Stephen Simmons, and WR Sidney Stewart were all held out of the game completely.
Backup CB Justan Vaughn, who would have been in the game in place of McManis, was also out. Although injuries should never be an excuse, the loss of so many key players was obviously a factor in the game.
Now Northwestern must regroup and try to repeat what they did so well in 2008: respond. NU suffered more injuries last season and had some disheartening defeats, but they fought back to win the next game each time.
Now the 'Cats must re-focus on the next task: the opening of Big Ten play against a tough Minnesota squad at home on Saturday.
Player of the Game:
Syracuse WR Mike Williams (11 receptions for 209 yards and 2 TDs) Williams has next-level size, speed, and talent, and he was no match for Northwestern's depleted cornerbacks.
He routinely got open and made big catches, including a long score to put Syracuse up by three scores in the first quarter, and the game-tying grab in the fourth. Oh, and he had a reception on Syracuse's very last drive to put the Orange in make-able field goal range.
And even when he wasn't catching the ball, he was busy taking up double-teams, allowing teammates to get free. He is a dangerous weapon and will be very successful as Syracuse's season progresses.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
QB Mike Kafka (35-of-42 passing for 390 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT; 13 rushes for -7 yards, 1 TD; and 1 reception for 24 yards, 1 TD) Kafka easily had the game of his career, going nuts in the passing game and adding some other weapons to NU's offensive arsenal as he rushed for a TD and added another receiving.
He completed his first 16 passing attempts on the day (an NU consecutive completion record), threw an NU single game completion rate record of 83.3 percent, and went 18-of-19 passing in the first half.
Yes, he had his mistakes (see below), but he accounted for all of NU's scoring and had the 'Cats in a position to win the football game.
WR Andrew Brewer (4 receptions for 73 yards, 1 TD; 1-of-1 passing for 24 yards, 1 TD; 6 kick returns for 111 yards) Brewer did a nice job in various roles, including the pass to Kafka where he pump-faked the defense before tossing over to Kafka.
He also filled in on kickoff returns with Simmons out of the game, and even came back following a hard tackle at his shins on his final kickoff return.
S Brad Phillips (7 solo tackles, 1 sack for -6 yards, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception returned 23 yards) It's hard to give an honorable mention to any NU defender, especially a defensive back given how the NU secondary was torched, but Phillips accounted for some key tackles (all of his were solo) and played a hand in one turnover and almost caused another (the fumble that he forced was recovered by Syracuse).
What to Work on:
Kafka's Mistakes: Despite the amazing day that Kafka had, he accounted for all of Northwestern's three turnovers on the evening (two lost fumbles and one interception) which turned into 10 points for Syracuse, including the aforementioned interception that set up their final go-ahead field goal.
On the throw where he was intercepted, he had plenty of room to run to his right, time left on the clock, and more downs to work with, yet he forced the throw.
Running Game: Not having starting RB Simmons available obviously hurt the run game a bit, but it was obvious that the 'Cats' game plan was to throw the ball. Even with the field well spread with the efficient passing game, though, the run game just wasn't there (NU averaged 1.9 yards per carry).
Barring a complete transition to a Texas Tech-like offense (almost exclusively passing), the Wildcats will have to perform better in the running game.
Defense: The Northwestern defense, supposedly one of the best units in over a decade at NU, fell flat on its face after watching things start to slip away in the second half of last week's game.
Despite racking up four sacks, two takeaways, holding the Orange to 2-of-12 on third down conversions, and holding Syracuse to under four yards per carry rushing, the D gave up 471 yards, 37 points, and looked like a shell of themselves when compared to last season.
Penalties: NU had seven penalties for a loss of 57 yards, some coming at very inopportune times. For a team that has been rather disciplined in the Coach Fitzgerald era, the 'Cats haven't followed that trend this year and it cost the 'Cats.
The only redeeming factor is that they seemed to hurt Syracuse a little more (they had fewer in number with six but more in yards with 64).
Third Down Conversions: Northwestern wasn't up at 70 percent like it had been through two games, but its 42 percent conversion rate sure beat Syracuse's 17 percent rate. Unfortunately, the Orange made more than enough long plays on first and second down to make up for that low conversion rate.
Arby Fields: RB Arby Fields has two carries for 24 yards (one was a 25 yard gain, the other a one yard loss), and despite accounting for almost half of NU's 52 net rushing yards on the night, he was rarely used.
Apparently Coach Fitz is really dedicated to the running back by committee, as Fields never really got another shot (and no injury was noted).
Run/Pass Distribution: Through two weeks, the Wildcats ran the ball more than twice as often as it passed. Against Syracuse, NU threw the ball 15 more times than it ran (and five rushes were essentially throws that ended in sacks).
Expect to see an offense similar to the one against SU for the remainder of the season as NU's offense is much more effective when throwing the football.
Attendance: After packing the place in week one, Syracuse did an admirable job filling the seats with 40,000+ in attendance, which is, of course, more than double NU's combined attendance for the first two weeks of the year.
Syracuse: The Orange looked like a different team than the one NU saw last season, and this one looks like it will win at least a few more games this year (after winning just 10 over the prior four seasons combined).
They are headed in the right direction and tripped up NU for their first win under first year head coach Doug Marrone.
Turnovers: The 'Cats lost the turnover battle 2-3, with that final one being the most costly. Syracuse also won the points off of turnovers battle 10-7.
The best thing that Northwestern can do in the next week is to put this game behind them and get healthy. The 'Cats offense should be effective enough to keep them in games this season (which many doubted going into the year), and QB Mike Kafka proved to everyone that he can throw the football.
The defense didn't play well, but then again was facing the loss of its middle linebacker along with a captain and top cornerback. A loss at Syracuse is no longer something of which to be ashamed, and there were a lot of positives to take away from the game (along with a lot of areas for improvement).
Now the Wildcats can come back home and prepare for a Big Ten opponent that is dangerous but has shown weakness of their own (remember Minnesota was taken to overtime against Syracuse in week one and are coming off of a home loss against California).
And if this team shows the resolve that we saw in 2008, Northwestern has the ability to avoid its first multi-game losing streak since 2007.