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Touching Down with Jonah Rosenblum: Thoughts on NU's Victory Over Syracuse

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

Jonah Rosenblum gives us six thoughts on the game in his "Touching Down with Jonah Rosenblum" column.

THE TOUCHDOWN

1. The first thing I took away from Saturday’s season opener was that Northwestern did an unbelievable job of putting the past behind it. Early on, Saturday’s contest looked like a repeat of the Wildcats’ sloppy 37-34 loss to the Orange in 2009. Northwestern’s offense kept stalling, Syracuse held a 6-0 lead and could have led by so much more and once again the Carrier Dome was turning into something out of a nightmare. Prince-Tyson Gulley’s 14-yard touchdown dash up the middle, which gave the Orange their last lead until the fourth quarter, was one of many successful sprints up the middle and it seemed to spell impending doom for Northwestern. And then for the remainder of the first half, boosted by a number of big plays, the Wildcats silenced the orange-clad spectators.

2. While it was a mixture of well-placed throws by Kain Colter and electric runs from Venric Mark that stole the show in the first half, the Wildcats were steadied by a surprisingly steady defense early on. Northwestern certainly wasn’t shutting anybody out. The Wildcats struggled to contain the run as the Orange used 26 first-half pass attempts from Ryan Nassib to set up the run. Overall, Syracuse averaged 6.4 yards per rush in the first half. And yet while the Northwestern defense certainly bent, it didn’t break. As good as Ryan Nassib was early, completing his first four passes, the Wildcats caused him some discomfort early, and he was forced to throw on his back foot on several occasions. The Wildcats even managed to force a couple of turnovers with a couple of hard hits, with an instantaneous knock on a Syracuse receiver causing one ball to pop up in the air for an interception, and another hard hit on an Orange wideout, this time a double whammy right into the receiver's chest, causing the ball to pop out for a fumble. And yet before Northwestern’s secondary ever had a chance to pat itself on the back, Syracuse came out firing. While the Wildcats at least had a defender near the ball on most occasions, they looked uncomfortable on passes deep down the field and cornerback Demetrius Dugar racked up one penalty too many. Worst of all, Dugar’s penalties weren’t of the necessary variety. It’s one thing when a defender gets beat and has to hang on for dear life. Then, it’s a smart play. But Dugar was on his receiver and really had no need to hold on. With Syracuse still trailing by a couple of scores, you knew that the Orange would try to test the Wildcats’ secondary with some deep passes, and Northwestern proved that it wasn’t up to the challenge. Davion Fleming racked up another unnecessary pass interference call and then Quinn Evans was badly burned on a pass deep down the left sideline. Evans literally fell, leaving Jeremiah Kobena with a harrowing several seconds trying to track the ball out of the sky. Nerves aside, Kobena was ultimately able to make the catch with not a single defender on him.

3. The second half was when all hell broke loose in the Northwestern backfield. Ryan Nassib was held in check during the first half, but once he realized that he could go downfield at any time, it seemed to comfort him, and he came out blazing in the third and fourth quarters. He had several go-to routes that he could rely on. First, there was the deep ball that whether it was well thrown or not, whether the receiver was open or not, would inevitably result in a yellow flag. Then, there were the slants over the middle that worked with machine-like precision. Sometimes, Syracuse would be particularly audacious and run the slant on consecutive plays. It didn’t matter. It still worked. Nassib ended up passing for 470 yards and he completed nearly every single attempt in the second half, last-minute screens and Hail Mary passes notwithstanding. And then finally on that penultimate drive, in which Syracuse stormed back to take the lead, Northwestern’s secondary put up its most miserable act yet. First, the Wildcats let Orange wide receiver Marcus Sales get a big break downfield. Even with Nassib’s badly under-thrown ball, Sales had enough space to wait on the ball and make the reception unfettered. Then, there was a missed opportunity at a sack, in which the defensive lineman simply barreled right by Nassib. That was bad. A 20-yard pass to Christopher Clark, in which the Northwestern defender once again fell down in his coverage, was worse. And then, the two-point play for the Orange in which Prince-Tyson Gulley was able to make an unbelievably wide turn around the left end of the line was unacceptable. In the carnage of Northwestern’s broken backfield, color commentator Joey Galloway made an excellent point, explaining that the Wildcats’ cornerbacks and safeties were getting into position just fine; they just had no clue how to play the ball.

4. Who remembers that time when Trevor Siemian came in against Army and led an impressive touchdown drive against the Black Knights? Well, you don’t need to worry about that fine afternoon in West Point anymore. You don’t need to rack your brain. Because Siemian led a similarly impressive drive against the Orange, completing 6-of-7 on the Wildcats’ game-winning drive. As impressive as he was through the air, he also had a critical run, in which he reluctantly packed up the ball and went on a jog through the middle of the field. He ultimately made it to the sideline, where he lured his defender into a personal foul penalty, thus giving Northwestern a critical first down. But he was in the game for his arm and he showed why with a gorgeous pass to Demetrius Fields. Reminiscent of the grab Fields made against Iowa in 2010, the very same play that sidelined Dan Persa for the rest of the year, Siemian’s throw from the opposite side of the field was right on the money. And Fields' ability to get one foot in bounds was both equally impressive and equally important.

5. And then that final drive. Even though Northwestern held a lead with 44 seconds remaining, the outcome was still up in the air. Quite literally! Because if the Wildcats couldn’t hold a 22-point lead with just greater than 23 minutes remaining, then they would be hard-pressed to hold onto a one-point lead with 44 seconds remaining. More frightening for those dressed in purple, Syracuse would have to go deep for the remainder of the game, thus aiming right at Northwestern’s Achilles heel. But then Syracuse didn’t go deep, and I still don’t understand why. Nassib’s first play was a short pass to the right sideline, and the Orange didn’t go deep until it was far too late. And so the Wildcats’ secondary was allowed to escape with a win that it certainly didn’t deserve.

6. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chi Chi Ariguzo’s jog to the end zone to begin the second half. First of all, it was one of the weirdest plays I have ever seen. Ariguzo didn’t look particularly intent on running anywhere with the football following a failed lateral by Syracuse. Orange running back Jerome Smith was ready for second down. None of which I get, since it doesn’t hurt to complete the play. It’s kind of like closing out on an open shooter in basketball. Sure, there’s a risk that you'll sprint toward the defender, only to have a three-pointer drained in your face, but you have to risk that embarrassment. Similarly, it might be embarrassing diving after a dead ball, but ultimately, until the whistle is blown, the play must go on. And for that matter, the Northwestern players didn’t do their job either. As pretty as Ariguzo’s one-handed pickup was, he should have started running right away. That’s the killer instinct that Northwestern needs. The one man who did have that killer instinct was a purple-clad maniac on the sidelines, who excitedly screamed and pointed Ariguzo toward the end zone from the moment the ball hit the ground. And it was clearly a valid touchdown. There was no doubt that it was a backward pass, no question that the ball drifted back a yard before Ariguzo picked it up.

THE EXTRA POINT

Given what a big playmaker Kain Colter was on Saturday, it would have been nice for NU to have him on the field for a critical third-down play in the fourth quarter. But Colter’s helmet was knocked off on a determined run up the middle on second down. As a result, due to the latest misguided, inane rule change by the NCAA, Colter had to sit out a play that could have changed the entire game. Was it Colter’s fault that his helmet flew off? Who knows? Maybe his helmet wasn’t strapped on tightly. Or maybe it was just a matter of physics, a natural consequence of the enormous hit Colter suffered. Either way, I understand why play needs to stop when a player’s helmet comes off. I do not understand why that player needs to sit out the next play. This was a very early peek at how this rule might affect real college football games, and it wasn’t a very good one. You hate to see something stupid like that determine the outcome of a college football game.