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Northwestern-Vanderbilt, the Recap: I'll Take It!

Hey, everybody. I'm sorry this is the first post on a Northwestern sports blog about a game that happened two days ago - appreciate that I was 900 miles away from my computer, and that sleep is important. I'm writing three posts today and we'll be back to our regular posting schedule after that - recaps will probably be up Sunday mornings for most of the season. You impatient jerks.

Talking about impatience, how about those Northwestern Wildcats? Something we need to appreciate here: a win, friends, is a win. No, no prognosticator says Vanderbilt is anything but a sub-par team. Yes, Northwestern only beat them by two points, and needed an early missed extra point, a terrible call - let's be real, terrible - and a Jesus-esque performance from Dan Persa to pull out the W. BUT PEOPLE: was last year unsuccessful? No? It was a relatively good season? Did we need a last-second field goal to beat Eastern Michigan in week 2? Did Eastern Michigan then go 0-12 0-8 in the MAC? I rest my case. Sometimes, you win badly, but life is too short to get pissed off about bad wins. 

In an essence, the way I feel about the game is just about the same way I feel about the absurdly poor penalty on Northwestern that gave them a first down that allowed them to run out the clock for the victory: sometimes, you're not sure why things happen in your favor. I'm not quite sure how Northwestern won the game, and I'm not quite sure how a referee saw that hit and decided to get all penalty up on Vanderbilt. But I'm not complaining.

Hit the jump for actual analysis.

  • Dan Persa accounted for 82 percent of Northwestern's offense. He had more carries than any other player and more passes than carries, and despite being by far the most featured player, I have literally only one criticism of his game, and it's an absurdly tiny one. He looked good on option plays when he kept them, but he did have a bad tendency to dump it off immediately when he didn't find a hole for himself, which put Arby Fields in a lot of bad positions when Persa should've cut the teams losses and taken a play for a loss of one or no gain rather than a loss of five on the pitch. The reason I highlight this up front is to highlight how disturbingly impressed I was with literally every facet of his game Saturday. I knew he could run. That's all I knew. I didn't know he could be a great decision-maker, complete 90 percent of his passes (Dan Persa not only probably has a higher GPA than I do, but also completes passes at a higher rate than I give correct answers on tests), throw on the run, and hit receivers on deep routes. 19-for-21, with 220 yards and three touchdowns isn't just good, it's unfair. Neither of his incompletions was a bad throw - the only bad one I remember was a deep pass to Demetrius Fields that looked like a pick but ended up beating the receiver for a 20+-yard catch. Overwhelming props to the junior - in a few hours, I went from being apprehensive of a Persa-led team to being excited for the rest of the season.
  • Which leads to the next question, and one everybody's already asked: if you have no running game... why are you forcing it? Outside of Persa - who both scrambled and played keepers well - there was no such thing as a successful runner for Norhwestern. Jacob Schmidt wasn't awful, but he certainly wasn't a show-stopper. Stephen Simmons didn't touch the ball enough to make any distinction. And Arby Fields had ten carries for -7 yards. Some of this is due to those pitches earlier, but some of this is due to him suddenly not being able to evade a defender by any method other than running backwards, and into another defender. Now, let's say you see your team sputter whenever Dan Persa isn't involved with the play. I know you need the run to set up the pass, but when your projected starter is going backwards, it's not so much setting up the pass as letting the defense know, "hey, we probably shouldn't worry about that No. 19 guy - he's pretty bad at running the ball in the correct direction. This run blitz seems awful unnecessary." At a certain point, you need to have a drive where, for better or worse, Persa is the only option. Let the defense know they have to cater to Persa - then Arby Fields might have a chance. It's especially distressing to write this after having thought Fields could be an absolute contributor to this offense. Persa needed about 15 more pass plays called for him. I'd take Persa being 27-35 with four touchdowns, 350 yards and a pick over 19-21 and depressingly conservative game calling keeping the ball out of his hands.
  • I wouldn't get concerned about Northwestern's defense. Bad all-around play, yes, but I'll chalk it up to a lack of experience. Each unit had a distinct bright spot: despite a TD that can be directly attributed to Jordan Mabin's poor coverage, the secondary had a great outing from Brian Peters, who seemed to always be in the right place at the right time. Ben Johnson was shockingly great at linebacker - if he can use his speed to play as well as he did both rushing the QB in the backfield, finding the rusher near the line of scrimmage, and in pass coverage. He might've dropped a pick, but, we can forgive that. Although it did lead to points, so I didn't want to forgive him then. (Also Nate Williams was everywhere, but that's less of a surprise.) And I said our weak spot would be defensive tackle, but Jack DiNardo looked legit up front at stopping the run, which genuinely surprised me.
  • Larry Smith isn't much of a quarterback. We made him look good, though. We stopped his running game, for the most part, at least, but, nothing to be proud of.
  • Let's talk terrible call, here: that was a terrible call. I turned to the Vandy fans behind me and said something to the extent of "well, that was an awful, awful call, but I'LL TAKE IT." That being said, Vanderbilt isn't driving the length of the field with no timeouts with 1:20 left, which they would've had to had that play been ruled 4th-and-short, which is questionable, because Persa looked pretty close to the first down marker from my angle. And let's watch this hit:

  • Horrendous officiating. Me and my friends walked around yelling at people complaining "yeah, terrible call by those biased SEC REFEREES THAT ARE BIASED", but, then, uh later, we found out, uh, they were, uh Big Ten refs. Sorry. That sucks. I'm not a medical expert, but you can't get a concussion in your upper back. As one of our Vanderbilt bros pointed out, Vandy fans are generally very, very, tame. He told us they have a tendency not to blame. They show up to football games in seersucker suits, for chrissake. When the game ends and they're throwing bottles at the referees, something went wrong in their proper southern minds. (Sidenote: after discussing how tame Commodores fans usually are, the bros blamed it on the "Nash-trash" who had apparently contributed to the game's good turnout.
  • Anchor of Gold has had some good posts since the game ended, but this is my favorite.
  • While we're talking about non-football stuff, great turnout. The stadium was pretty much full.
  • And the uniforms looked great too! I'm more excited about the home ones, though.
  • If you play on special teams, and you're not Brandon Williams, let's have a little talk. (this goes to Vanderbilt people, too. This is a learning experience for everybody.) Brandon, you're free to go. Nice job. You can punt the ball with your feet. The rest of you, do what he does. Missing a block on a regular play: bad, but, hey, we'll take it. Missing a block on any sort of kick related play: STOP IT AND DON'T DO IT AGAIN. Thank you. I'm not sure what happened on the next field goal screw up - was it a bad snap? I don't feel like rewatching the whole game to find it - but, 40-foot-tall Jesus, we need to figure this stuff out.
  • Talking about special teams, we spent all of halftime watching Vanderbilt's kicker attempt 45-yarders, and playing the "which direction is this kicker likely to miss this field goal in dramatic fashion" game. Needless to say, when he attempted a 45-yarder for the lead in the fourth quarter, my friends and I were amused instead of scared. We laughed.
  • I'm not a football expert: but something I learned from last year's Outback Bowl is that if you want a play to work, it's nice to make the opposing team think you're doing something different. I knew both of Vanderbilt's two-point conversions would fail because they didn't put any of their running backs -Warren Norman and Zac Stacy who had played well and scared me - in the backfield on either one. Instead, they ran a designed shotgun keeper for Smith - stopped at the line - and botched a snap, which isn't due to the running back thing, but still. I say this because I like the way NU plays on third downs and goal lines now. There's a legit threat of the run with Schmidt, and our superbacks keep the pass threat spread. Vanderbilt is still in a transitional spread-like state where they know that putting Larry Smith under center is a major mistake. Meanwhile, Persa took some snaps under center, and even drew an offsides call from a defender expecting the rush on a snap count. A tiny adjustment, but not what we're used to at NU, and it's one of the little things that made sure Northwestern won the game: as NUFTW pointed out in the comments, both teams scored three touchdowns, a field goal, and missed an extra point. Because Vandy's missed PAT was earlier, they had to try to go for two - their bad playcalling led to the screwup on the first two-point conversion, which led to them being in a deficit.
  • Where was Venric Mark? Let's not unnecessarily burn this redshirt, guys.
  • And last but not least, I might not be LTP, but I am a genius for predicting NU would score 23 points. I got called out in the comments section by Sasser for assuming NU would kick three field goals. I warn him to think outside the box: if I predict a team will score 14 points, I think it's just as likely that they record six safeties and a defensive two-point conversion as it is that they score two touchdowns. Just so happened I foresaw three touchdowns, a field goal, and a missed PAT for Northwestern. (Not for Vandy.) And I called Justan Vaughn as the under-the-radar player, and sure enough, he had a pick. Of course, he had nothing to do with the pick being a pick, it was a terrible overthrow, and a defensive back getting a pick isn't really a sign of my genius, but I am Nostradamus. Or at the very least Nastradamus.


  • More later.