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Second Half Slide Gives Cause for Pause as Northwestern Looks Ahead to Penn State

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

After 30 minutes of football, there was no reason to believe Indiana belonged on the same field as Northwestern. With dominating performances on both sides of the ball, a 20-0 lead and all indications pointing toward yet another win in the Wildcats’ undefeated season, the second half promised little in the way of intrigue, excitement or viewing appeal. The way NU’s defense had fared in three games prior (along with the first half of this game), allowing a combined 33 points against Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota, expecting anything less than a comfortable victory seemed foolish. NU would go on to secure the win, its first against a Big Ten opponent, in the process securing its second 5-0 start (2010) in the last three seasons. But the second half, as is custom with NU’s recent football tradition, was more of a game than it ever needed to be.

Having imposed their will on the Hoosiers in the opening half, building positive momentum throughout, NU couldn’t maintain its intensity after the break. Moments after Kain Colter pointed his finger to the sky in celebration of his third of four rushing touchdowns, the Hoosiers embarked on a 21-point scoring blitz in a five-minute span. It was a familiar scene for the Wildcats, who blew a 23-point third-quarter lead against Syracuse just four weeks earlier. But unlike that horror show against the Orange, where schematic flaws and miscommunication errors ran rampant, NU’s second-half slide was about individual hiccups, one-on-one battles lost on the margin.

“They did a terrific job in the second half number one by making big plays in the passing game,” Coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the IU offense. “As I looked in the boundary in our communication, we had guys in position. We’ve got to win on those plays. If we win on those plays it’s a completely different outcome.”

On the first of the Hoosiers’ two third-quarter scoring drives, offensive guru and former NU coordinator Kevin Wilson broke out the two-minute offense, an uptick in pace the Wildcats’ defense were ill-equipped to handle. Quarterback Cameron Coffman engineered a near flawless nine-play, 75-yd sequence in just two minutes and 28 seconds, capped by a 20-yard end zone plunge from tailback Stephen Houston. Missed tackles and blown assignments – a reoccurring theme in NU’s slew of defense mishaps – paved the way for the Hoosiers’ swift touchdown strike. Compounding NU’s defensive blunders, Venric Mark fumbled away possession just two plays later, at a time when IU needed turnovers to keep its comeback hopes alive. The Hoosiers scored just over a minute later, got a 96-yard touchdown return from running back Tevin Coleman, then pulled within eight after ripping off another quick scoring drive (plus a two point conversion) to open the fourth quarter.

What seemed like a sure-fire blowout win just 15 minutes earlier quickly morphed into a one-possession game, and individual mistakes were almost entirely to blame. “It’s little fundamental things that will get corrected in the future,” NU linebacker Damien Proby, who led the Wildcats with 14 tackles, said of the defense. One of those mishaps inspired one of the best highlight-reel catches of this young college football season. Much less a defensive hiccup, Cody Latimer’s 33-yard reception early in the fourth quarter can best be described as an angelic mix of unfathomable hand-eye coordination and pure athletic bliss. Cornerback Nick VanHoose, who had his worst game of the season after a fantastic first month, met Latimer in the air, jump-for-jump, body-to-body. But it was Latimer who won that individual battle, a sequence symptomatic of the kind of the singular defeats NU defenders suffered throughout the second half.

Fortunately for the defense, the offense picked the right time to bust out a school-record 704 yards of offense. That explosion – built on the back of Colter’s four touchdowns and 308 yards passing from Trevor Siemian – rendered IU’s upset bid moot. But Fitzgerald, per the usual with the nit-picking perfectionist, saw room for improvement on that side of the ball, too. “Offensively, similar to when we were starting the year, the only thing slowing us down today was us.” That assessment is as much a slight on the Hoosiers’ defense as it is a compliment to NU’s offense. It’s highly doubtful the Wildcats can summon up this prolific attack against better Big Ten outfits. Chances are, the Wildcats have hit their offensive apex. From here on out, it’d be foolish to expect NU to reprise this offensive mastery, not against Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska or anyone else on the Wildcats schedule. NU needed this prolific effort to survive one of the conference’s worst teams.

The Wildcats can’t afford another second-half letdown, nor can they expect the offense explode in this manner. Fitzgerald acknowledged that improvements, in all three phases of the game, must be made before NU embarks on the difficult portion of the league schedule. “We have a lot of work to do and we’ll be in a very hostile environment a week from now for our first Big Ten road test. If we don’t get better, we’re going to get blown out.” NU escaped its first conference test with a performance that failed to live up to its recent streak of three-phase proficiency. Flaws were exposed, especially on defense, and that alone should instill a measure of trepidation, of vulnerability, as NU travels to State College next week for its toughest game yet. It doesn’t help that Penn State, who throttled Illinois 35-7 Saturday, is only now hitting its stride after an 0-2 start. Just in time for NU.