by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
The sun was beaming, Kain Colter was shining in his old role as slot receiver, Venric Mark was scintillating in his new role as running back, Trevor Siemian was unfurling spiral after spiral, and then for a brief moment, undefeated Northwestern suffered a scare.
The Wildcats had jumped out to a 27-0 lead, behind myriad electric plays on offense and a devastating defense, and then the Hoosiers came alive. Just 13 minutes after Northwestern took a 27-point lead, Indiana pulled off a tricky two-point conversion to draw within 37-29.
"We dodged a bullet today," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We talked about at halftime, the game being back at 0-0 and we needed to go back out and win the second half, and obviously we failed at that miserably."
Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) managed to hold on for a 44-29 victory, even though it made Indiana's offense resemble Oregon's in the process.
It didn't appear like there would be much cause for concern early, as three touchdown runs by junior quarterback Kain Colter and two field goals by junior kicker Jeff Budzien gave the Wildcats a 27-0 lead. Then, the Hoosiers' stagnant offense erupted.
First, there were a few missed tackles from a Northwestern defense that had held Indiana entirely off of the scoreboard to that point. The Hoosiers (2-2, 0-1) made a dent on the scoreboard, as Stephen Houston bowled over a would-be tackler en route to a 20-yard touchdown run.
"We weren't playing Hoosier ball out there," Houston said. "But then we stopped panicking and let the game come to us."
Still, the sun was shining, and Venric Mark was on the verge of program history with 94 rushing yards. On the very next play, he gave the Wildcats an 100-yard rusher for the fourth straight weekend. He also gave Indiana the ball.
The Hoosiers, grateful for the gift, turned to freshman Nate Sudfield, who first found wide receiver Kofi Hughes for a spectacular leaping grab along the right sideline. It was so much fun that Sudfield did the exact same thing again, this time finding Hughes down the middle for a touchdown. The Wildcats had fairly good coverage on Hughes, but the defender mistimed his jump, and Hughes held on for the touchdown.
"We had guys in position but we have got to win on those plays," Fitzgerald said. "If we win on those plays, it's a completely different outcome."
Though the deep passes were reminiscent of the ones Syracuse completed in Northwestern's 42-41 victory on September 1st, junior linebacker Damien Proby insisted that Saturday's game brought up a different set of issues.
"In Week One, we just missed plays. We had a lot of miscommunication, things that were reminiscent of last season," Proby said. "Today, as you guys saw, we were on top of every play. It was a jump ball, and they made the better play than we did on a given play. It was no comparison. We were there every time."
The Wildcats had a response ready, first in the form of Colter, who sprinted 26 yards up the field, and then in the form of Siemian, who fired a devastating laser to Christian Jones and then tossed a deep ball to Rashad Lawrence that put Northwestern on the threshold. Venric Mark maintained his slippery status in the red zone, immediately punching it in on his first try to give the Wildcats a 34-14 lead.
Indiana didn’t waste time mounting a response, however, as Tevin Coleman, a running back who apparently never gets to run the ball, took the kick back 96 yards for a touchdown. This after Coleman started the play off by fumbling the kickoff. But the freshman redeemed himself by winning several one-on-ones and leaving his final tackler in the dust along the right sideline.
"We have got some personnel issues on our kickoff team that will be addressed and fixed by me tonight when I go home," Fitzgerald said. "(We'll) try to get some of our defensive guys some rest on that team and obviously we've got some holes in the dam. We allowed way too much water to sift through. Credit the Hoosiers. They blocked us, they ran through us and they ran around us on our kickoff team, and we've got to fix that starting right now."
Northwestern came back with its old running back, Mike Trumpy, who ran 22 yards right through the heart of Indiana’s defense. Trumpy ran for the next first down as well to push the Wildcats past midfield. Then, Siemian found Christian Jones deep down the left sideline for a spectacular leaping grab. The 29-yard catch by the sophomore put the Wildcats back in the red zone. Northwestern should have had another touchdown, as Siemian relied on quick feet to avert Indiana’s pass rush and found senior wide receiver Demetrius Fields open in the right part of the end zone. Fields, however, dropped an easy one, and Budzien nailed his 11th field goal of the season from 29 yards out.
Trailing 37-21, the Hoosiers were still within two possessions to end the third quarter. Running back D’Angelo Roberts started right but then cut left for 17 yards to put Indiana in Northwestern territory. Then, Houston exposed a huge hole in the left side, gaining 14 yards, before senior cornerback Quinn Evans finally brought him down. Sudfield put the Hoosiers on the verge of the end zone with a lob to wide receiver Cody Latimer. Recognizing the weakness of the Wildcats' secondary, Sudfield decided to trust his receiver on the jump ball, and Latimer obliged with the reception. The sophomore made it look easy too, boxing out redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose to make the easy catch.
"We took some shots down the field and they made some incredible plays," Sudfield said. "I'm very comfortable. Our receivers make incredible plays in practice and they all have great speed and great hands. All I have to do is throw it up for them."
Roberts cashed in with a touchdown run, leaving freshman safety Traveon Henry sprawled on the ground behind him. The Hoosiers were now within 10, and opting to go for two to make it a one-possession game, they flipped a reverse pass to Hughes, who easily sprinted into the end zone.
Colter began the next Wildcats drive with a 15-yard run around the right end. Siemian then found Colter on a crossing route with a crisply thrown pass. Colter wasn’t open, but Siemian’s pass hit him on the run for an 18-yard gain. That turned Colter into Jason Kidd’s reverse agent with a double-triple, 100-plus yards rushing and receiving. Colter and Siemian hooked up again on third and eight with a beautiful 10-yard pass, under duress, to a leaping Colter.
"Kain's Kain. He's unbelievable. He's as dynamic a young man as maybe in this conference. I really do," Fitzgerald said. "Very proud of the way he has played. But none of us are surprised. We knew that in high school and it shows obviously in the way that he can pick up our system, and we are just getting started, I'll put it to you that way, with the things that we're going to do."
But Colter, in his first game at wideout, still showed growing pains, as Siemian’s next pass went off his fingertips and into the hands of Indiana safety Alexander Webb.
The Hoosiers, for the first time since the first quarter, had a chance to tie the game with a single touchdown. Sudfield’s third-down pass down the right sideline was misfired, however, and in a half where neither defense could hold its ground, that proved to be a deadly mistake. Colter sprinted 17 yards up the middle, and a couple of plays later, had a touchdown up the left sideline, but Northwestern’s score was erased by a holding penalty. So, Colter went back to work, eluding a couple of tackles for a first down up the middle. Mike Trumpy barreled forward for another Wildcats first down just two plays later. Colter followed with a run around the right end, somehow squeezing between two defenders, like a cruiseship squeezing through the Panama Canal, for a 22-yard touchdown run.
Indiana wasn't done yet, however, as Sudfield inexplicably decided to throw to a tightly covered Latimer. Coverage be darned, however, as it was for most of the second half, Evans failed to jump and the ball flew right over his helmet into Latimer's hands. That put the Hoosiers in the red zone. The Wildcats forced them into a fourth and two and then finally covered the deep ball as Sudfield's pass into the back of the end zone fell incomplete.
Siemian, whose previous high was 123 passing yards, passed for 308 yards in what Fitzgerald termed Siemian's first start for Northwestern. Siemian completed 22-of-32 in the Wildcats' win. While Siemian accounted for 308 of Northwestern's 310 passing yards, Colter took care of the rushing and receiving games, finishing with 161 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns along with 131 receiving yards.
"He did a good job shaking loose, beating his guy," Siemian said. "I don't think they had an answer for Kain all day."
Mark also passed the century mark with 139 rushing yards, marking the first time Northwestern has had two 100-yard rushers in a game since 2003.
"Offensively, again similar to the way we started the year, the only thing that really slowed us down today was us," Fitzgerald said. "That's no disrespect to Indiana. We just thought that we had a game plan. The guys were executing pretty well."
The Wildcats will bring their perfect record to Happy Valley next week, which has been anything but happy for Northwestern in recent years. The Wildcats have won just one game at Beaver Stadium in seven tries.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Fitzgerald said. "We're in a very hostile environment a week from now for our first Big Ten road test, and if we don't get better, we're going to get blown out."
If you ever wondered why Trevor Siemian is on the field for Northwestern, just watch him on the first drive of the second half. First, he unfurled a beautiful spiral down the left sideline, which fell right into the hands of Tony Jones. Then, he zipped a laser beam over to Rashad Lawrence for a three-yard gain. If you ever wondered why Kain Colter is on the field for Northwestern, just watch his zigzagging run into the end zone to put the Wildcats up 27-0. This quarterback battle continues to make Pat Fitzgerald sleep well at night.
The fans came out in droves to Ryan Field. So what if many of them didn’t arrive until noon. By the time Northwestern expanded its lead to 27-0 at the beginning of the third quarter, the end zone area was half-filled. The east side of the stadium was nearly full around midfield. The student section had a strong showing. And only Section 101, Section 102 and Section 103 remained open for the seagulls. Not bad for a late September game against Indiana, which is not only bad, but brings very few fans of its own. This game is probably most comparable to last season’s game against Minnesota, and the half-full end zone represents a major improvement from last year’s showing against the Golden Gophers. You can probably credit Northwestern’s perfect record for that. The total crowd was 33,129.
For all of the success Northwestern has had against the rush this season, Indiana exposed a few holes. First, there was Isaiah Roundtree’s winding run, where he ran left before cutting right for nine yards. In the second half, there was Stephen Houston’s 24-yard dash up the left sideline, in which he went virtually untouched, and was one open-field tackle from a touchdown run along the left sideline. Houston got his touchdown shortly therafter, as he bowled over one would-be tackler on his way to the end zone. For the first time in recent memory, missed tackles started to set in among the Wildcats’ defense. After holding Boston College to 25 rushing yards two weeks ago, Northwestern had surrendered that total after 15 minutes. After holding South Dakota to 51 rushing yards last week, Northwestern had surrendered that total by halftime.
If Evanston felt more like Eden over the past several weeks, with the temperature hovering in the sixties, the sun making daily apperances for once and the Wildcats boasting a perfect record, there was a little bit of trouble in paradise on Saturday, when Northwestern’s 27-0 lead was disrupted, first by a few missed tackles leading to a Stephen Houston touchdown, then by a fumble from Venric Mark, Northwestern’s sixth of the season, then by a set of twin killers to Indiana wide receiver Kofi Hughes.
Fitzgerald noted that Colter was special off the field as well, pointing out that after the game, he spoke with Dr. Jeff Backes of Wildcats' lore. Backes was particularly noteworthy for his role in Northwestern's 2004 upset of Ohio State, in which he registered 10 tackles and had a diving interception in the Buckeyes' end zone. But that might not have been the reason why Colter was so interested in talking to him:
"Jeff's here as a guest, and (Kain) is aspiring to be a doctor down the road with a pre-med major. That's what college football is all about."
Colter also said last year, after another game against Indiana, this time in Bloomington, that he aspired to a triple-triple, which would mean 100 yards passing, receiving and rushing. He maintained Saturday that that's still a goal of his.
"That would be an awesome thing to get, but as long as we get that W, I don't really care."