It seemed a meaningless endeavor at the time, and even after he explained the decision post-game, I’m not sure I understand what Pat Fitzgerald was thinking when he challenged Illinois receiver Steve Hull’s two-yard reception in the third quarter on 1st and 10 from the Illini 31-yard-line.
During the game, plenty of folks were baffled by the move, and rightfully so: With his team down four points, Fitzgerald was risking the loss of a potentially valuable timeout. And for what? To potentially set Illinois back two yards? In the big picture, were two receiving yards from a player who finished the game with 155 of them, including one 43-yard reception, so important as to warrant a challenge?
I was thinking it and so were you: This was a terrible decision.
As you can see below, Hull failed to complete the catch as he was tackled out of bounds by Northwestern cornerback Matthew Harris. Clearly Fitzgerald (or one of Northwestern’s other coaches) recognized as much, or else they wouldn’t have felt confident enough to throw the flag. More interesting is what happened next.
(footage from BTN)
…It actually worked. And not just in the obvious, Northwestern-won-a-challenge-and-didn’t-burn-a-time-out type of way. No, it turned the sarcastic tweet below into a prophetic proclamation.
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Pat Fitzgerald bid the 2013 season “good riddance” a week early last Saturday. But a week later, as he actually bids the year adieu, there was finally something to cheer about in Evanston, albeit a golf clap more than an ovation.
Saturday’s 37-34 win over Illinois was a nice one to send the seniors out on top, but that’s about all you can say about a win against hapless — and I do mean hapless — Illinois.
Once the dust settles, there will be no bowl game, there will only be words of “good riddance” for a team that may have barely lost out to Florida for the title of “most disappointing” this season. It’s been a long, rough fall since GameDay, and Northwestern is ready to move on to next year despite the win tonight.
There will be an entire offseason to second guess this year’s decisions, and to be quite honest, there has already been an offseason’s worth of criticism, most of it deserved. From the puzzling play calls to the conservative coaching to the misuse of talent, this hasn’t been the best year fort Pat Fitzgerald or Mick McCall. You can blame injuries or the expectations or whatever you want, but the bottom line is they didn’t get the job done and neither did the players.
But while Saturday’s victory over Illinois doesn’t provide any solace this year, there were actually some things to like about next year. Next year should be better, after all, and Saturday’s game provided proof of that:
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If Northwestern’s 37-34 win over Illinois is celebrated, it won’t have anything to do with the 2013 season. Ending a seven-game losing streak, sending the senior class off on a good note and beating your in-state rival – not to mention earning the rights to this trophy for the next 12 months – are nice rewards at the end of a disappointing season. But that’s not why Northwestern fans should feel good about this victory.
They should feel good because of what they saw from Trevor Siemian and Christian Jones. Quarterback Siemian and receiver Jones both played the best games of their respective college careers. Here’s something else the two juniors have in common: they’ll both be back next year.
Jones’ 27-yard, one-handed touchdown catch to put Northwestern up 10-0 in the first quarter set the tone for a huge afternoon. But that wasn’t even the best play Jones made Saturday. Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Wildcats holding a three-point lead over the Illini, Siemian fired a bullet toward the back right corner of the end zone, where Jones dove, kept his feet in bounds and secured the ball on a seven-yard score. The level of difficulty on that play — the way Jones was forced to dive at an awkward angle, snatch the ball, make sure to tap the end zone grass with his toes, all before putting his palms between the ball and the ground to ensure it wasn’t ruled incomplete — was remarkable.
Siemian consistently found Jones on passes short and long, over the middle and to the outside, all of them adding for a career-high 182-receiving yards on 13 catches. At the end of the game, the only debatable thing about Jones’ sterling performance was which of his two touchdown catches would be ranked higher on Sportscenter’s top 10 plays tomorrow morning. I’ll take the second one.
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After weeks of ineffectiveness, Northwestern’s offense was rolling on its first two drives against the 110th-ranked defense in the country. The Wildcats drove down the field behind a big run from Mike Trumpy on the sideline and a great rush by quarterback Trevor Siemian down the middle to get into the red zone. However, NU’s red zone woes continued with two stuffed runs and a penalty for an ineligible receiver, forcing the Cats to kick the field goal on the first drive.
They made up for it on the second drive with help from Christian Jones, who had a monster day. He made a stellar one-handed grab for the touchdown—NU’s first in regulation since the first half against Nebraska three weeks ago.
NU’s defense held strong on Illinois’ first two drives but the Illini broke through for a touchdown to start the second quarter, cutting the lead to three. Receiver Steven Hull made a great/lucky catch while lying on the ground in the endzone.
Illinois struck again just over two minutes later to take its first lead of the game, but NU answered with a touchdown of its own from Siemian to Dan Vitale on a crossing route in the red zone.
The Cats had an opportunity to steal some major momentum when Collin Ellis nearly intercepted a pass, but he couldn’t hang on and instead the Illini went for a 51-yard field goal, which Taylor Zalewski nailed despite kicking into the wind.
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At halftime of Northwestern’s final game of the season, the Wildcats lead Illinois 20-17.
– On its first two drives, Northwestern picked apart Illinois defense and scored a combined 10 points – three on the first after Rashad Lawrence’s would-be touchdown catch was nixed due to an illegal touching penalty; seven on the second after Christian Jones snatched a Siemian pass out of the air with one hand and trotted into the end zone. Jones’ touchdown grab prompted this facial expression from Illini coach Tim Beckman.
– The offense stalled later in the first quarter. Northwestern gained only 28 yards on its next two drives as Illinois’ defense began to get pressure on quarterback Trevor Siemian.
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- Hello from Memorial Stadium, where “The Game” is on the scoreboard. The game on the field, coming up in 40 minutes or so, figures to be less interesting.
- Kain Colter is out today. He was doubtful heading in. It’s a shame that’s how his college career will end.
- The two other injuries to watch are Traveon Henry and Geoff Mogus. Henry is questionable, Mogus is probable. Getting Mogus back will be very helpful for NU’s offensive line, facing the 119th-ranked run defense in the country.
- There’s a steady wind blowing to the north. Northwestern’s already struggling passing game might struggle even more for two quarters today.
- The good news for the Wildcats’ struggling offense? Illinois is absolutely terrible at defense — 110th in the country, to be exact.
- It’s gorgeous out besides the wind. It’s sunny and in the upper 40s last I checked.
- The LOL trophy is on the line, so we have a GIF for all the LOLs:
We’re split this week. Who would’ve thought that two months ago?
Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
I honestly have no idea who to pick here. Northwestern should win. The Wildcats have a good enough defense to slow down the Illini and enough of an offense to put up some points. However, the defense looked pretty uninterested last week and I’m worried NU has already packed it in. All week, I planned on picking Illinois, but “intangibles” aside, NU is the better team, so what the heck — Wildcats win, red zone touchdowns and all.
Northwestern 31, Illinois 24
Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The natural impulse is to expect a beaten down, despondent, seemingly unlucky Northwestern team to throw in the towel, to give up and follow the wise words of one Lee Corso, to loaf their way through the final game of the season. I suspect that’s what most other people expect Northwestern to do in this game. Maybe not. In any case, I’m going against my first impression and taking the Wildcats to win.
Why? 1) I think this game matters quite a bit to Northwestern’s players. Freshman Matt Harris disliked Illinois even before he showed up for summer workouts. 2) Mick McCall read ESPN Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg’s subtle joke about one specific play Northwestern tends to run in third-and-long situations, and decided to excise it from the playbook. Actually, after reading what McCall told Teddy Greenstein this week, that second reason is almost certainly inaccurate. In any case, I don’t think Illinois – Big Ten “winning streak” and all – is very good, which is probably a better explanation than any other for my pick and score prediction.
Northwestern 27, Illinois 20
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