The Northwestern Wildcats (5-3, 2-2) pulled within one win of bowl eligibility as they posted an NU record 25 point comeback to defeat Indiana (4-4, 1-3) on Homecoming by a score of 29-28 .
If NU fans would have known that the 'Cats would give up a 70 yard TD run on Indiana's first play from scrimmage, give up a 93 yard kickoff return for TD, and lose the turnover battle 3-0, there is no way they would have believed what happened this past Saturday.
The 'Cats once again had a slow start, allowing the aforementioned TD by Darius Willis, and seemingly stood by and watched as the Hoosiers built up a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter. Prior to this game, NU's biggest comeback was 21 points (versus Minnesota in both 2000 and 2007, with a 35-14 deficit in both games).
Northwestern answered with a 68 yard drive that ended in a Stefan Demos field goal, only to watch as Indiana's Ray Fisher returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown to put IU up by a significant 28-3 margin.
At that point, NU's bowl hopes were on life support as the 'Cats seemingly couldn't do anything right on offense, defense, or special teams. Injuries were piling up, with starting LB David Arnold and S Brendan Smith out for the game, S Brad Phillips came in and out of the game, CB Sherrick McManis came out of the game in the second quarter, and S Brian Peters played with one of his hands completely wrapped up.
But despite the deficit on the scoreboard and all of those personnel setbacks, Northwestern kept fighting. NU responded by putting together consecutive 10 play touchdown drives, including a fade-route TD from Mike Kafka to Zeke Markshausen with just seven ticks left on the clock before halftime. That cut the 'Cats' deficit to 28-17 after two quarters.
During halftime, DE Corey Wootton, who got the first sack of his 2009 season in the first quarter, made an inspired speech to the rest of the team that apparently inspired them to continue their comeback.
Although NU didn't have the best third quarter on offense, as the 'Cats had two interceptions and a punt on their first three second-half drives, the defense put together a great effort in spite of numerous injuries. NU allowed just 48 total yards in the quarter and the special teams contributed to the 'Cats' cause with a Ricky Weina blocked punt that turned into a safety, which cut Indiana's margin to 28-19.
Another important play came when Indiana went for it on fourth-and-goal from the NU one yard line, once again using WR Mitchell Evans from the "heavy Wildcat" formation that basically included nine linemen. Northwestern had the pass play well-covered and took down Evans at the two as he cut back across the field.
The 'Cats capitalized on that opportunity, driving out to the 49 yard line before Kafka found WR Andrew Brewer streaking deep, resulting in a 51 yard touchdown that put NU within striking distance of the win 28-26.
Despite yet another Kafka interception, the NU D held, allowing 61 total yards and stopping IU on another fourth down try, this time on the NU 33 yard line.
Following that stop, NU put together a time-consuming drive that would eventually prove to be the game-winner. NU bled 6:43 off the clock thanks to strong running from RB Scott Concannon who was effectively given primary running duties with Stephen Simmons and Jacob Schmidt sidelined with injuries and Arby Fields being relatively ineffective.
Concannon rushed for 32 yards, including runs of 15 and 11 yards on consecutive plays early in the drive, as the 'Cats ran for a total of 55 yards on the drive. That put NU in position to kick a go-ahead field goal from the IU two yard line with 21 seconds left on the game clock, which Stefan Demos nailed despite a tough angle.
Indiana made a last-ditch effort by recovering the squib kick at their own 40, completed an 18 yard pass, and spiked the ball to give them a chance to try a 59 yard field goal with just a couple ticks left on the clock. The Nick Freeland kick was well short, though, and the epic Wildcat comeback and Homecoming victory was complete that also breathed new life into the 2009 Northwestern football season.
Player of the Game:
Northwestern CB Ricky Weina (1 blocked punt, 2 tackles, 1 pass break-up) Weina was an unlikely hero, a walk-on sophomore who had played relatively little until McManis went down in the first half of the game, and with usual backup Justan Vaughn also out with an injury, it was up to this third-stringer to help shut down IU's passing game.
Weina did that and more by playing a great game at corner, helping the NU D hold Indiana to just 109 yards in the second half. Plus, he blocked a punt that ended up going for an NU safety that proved to be vital points for the Northwestern comeback. Most of all, his effort embodied the fight NU showed during their epic comeback.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
Offensive Line (0 sacks allowed, 4.0 yards per carry rushing) IU came into the game averaging 2.6 sacks per game and did a good job containing opponents' running games. But the NU OL protected Kafka very well for the entire day, keeping the potent IU DEs Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton from earning any sacks. They also allowed the 'Cats to move the ball effectively on the ground, particularly on the final game-winning drive.
Downfield Passing Game: There have been many detractors to the Northwestern passing game this year, who claimed that NU's lack of downfield passing was hurting NU. The 'Cats showed them that they could indeed go downfield, completing three 20+ yard passes and were close on multiple other shots that forced the IU defense to play more honest coverage that eventually opened up room for the running attack late in the game.
Ability to Respond: We've seen the 'Cats get behind early multiple times this year, only to fight their way back into contention, or, in this case, victory. The defense, like they did against Purdue, fought off early implosions to keep their opponent off the scoreboard through the entire second half.
What to Work on:
Turnovers: Amazingly, Northwestern was able to pull off the win in spite of three second-half interceptions that threatened their comeback attempt. Twice Kafka saw one of his passes picked off by a defender in zone coverage underneath the intended receiver. He made numerous big plays for the offense (including with his legs) but three INTs would likely put the nail in NU's coffin against most of their remaining opponents this season.
Staying Focused Early: In a game strangely reminiscent of this year's win at Purdue, NU got way behind early and finally woke up before halftime. The 'Cats can't afford to spot early points to their next two opponents (who are both currently in the top 10 of the BCS-component polls), Penn State and Iowa.
Special Teams Coverage: Kick coverage has generally been solid under Coach Fitzgerald, but for the second time in four years, he watched as Indiana returned a kick for a score. IU also added a long punt return to set up a touchdown early in the game. The 'Cats had to result to short kickoffs the rest of the way to prevent another big return, something that will need to be shored up to give the NU D a shot at pinning opponents deep.
Health: Not something that can always be prevented, NU is continuing to suffer significant injuries, forcing them to dig down on the roster to find players to take the field. The 'Cats could really benefit from some improved health, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Total Yards by Half: First Half: NU 265 - IU 201, Second Half: NU 216 - IU 109.
IU Rushing Game: Northwestern allowed a 70 yard touchdown run on IU's first offensive play from scrimmage, but only yielded 63 yards on the ground after that, and only 2.4 yards per carry.
Shutout Halves: NU has shut out each of its last four opponents in at least one half of the game (Purdue: second half, Miami OH: first half, Michigan State: first half, Indiana: second half).
Lots of Plays: The 'Cats ran 87 offensive plays after coming into the game with a Big Ten-leading 75.9 offensive plays per game.
Not-So-Wildcat: Indiana mixed in its version of the "Wildcat" early and often with lots of blockers on the line and Mitchell Evans in shotgun behind center. Evans had seven runs for a total of just seven yards and completed his only pass for just nine yards on the day, with the 'Cats stopping him of the aforementioned fourth down play at the NU one in one of the biggest plays of the day.
Interesting Call by Indiana: With time winding down in the third quarter and having driven down to the NU one, Indiana's coach Bill Lynch had a critical decision to make: go for the field goal to extend IU's lead to 12 or go for a potential back-breaking TD to go up by 16. He went for the touchdown, didn't make it, and watched the 'Cats drive 98 yards to get within two early in the fourth quarter.
Despite numerous injuries to key personnel and spotty play, especially at the beginning of games, Northwestern has shown a huge amount of heart this season and has earned its five wins the hard way. Now comes the toughest portion of the Wildcats' schedule, with top 10 teams Penn State and Iowa the next two weeks, and everyone will get to see what NU is really made of.
It's not always pretty, but the 'Cats sure are entertaining and have found a way to five wins with four games left in the season, allowing them to control their bowl fate. And if Northwestern can finally put together a "complete" football game on both sides of the ball, they could very well come up with a season-defining upset victory.