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.
Of course, Jones wouldn’t have been able to put up the numbers he did without some help from Siemian, who completed 70 percent of his passes (31-of-44) for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns. Siemian was as precise as he was poised, two adjectives that could not be used to describe the his play over the past seven weeks, when Northwestern's passing offense fell into a rut and came up short time and again.
His long throws – including Jones’ first touchdown catch and a 23-yarder to Rashad Lawrence in the fourth quarter – were impressive, but so were his mid-range and short ones. Siemian fired so many drive-extending darts Saturday, it was almost surprising when a Northwestern passing play didn’t result in a first down (Siemian averaged 9.4 yards per attempt).
There is one important caveat that must be mentioned: Illinois has one of the worst pass defenses in the Big Ten. It ranks 11th in pass efficiency defense. But compared to the way Northwestern’s pass offense, and Siemian more specifically, has looked over the course of its seven-game losing streak, Saturday’s effort was downright impressive. No matter what kind of defense is lining up across the field, 400 + yards passing, a 70 percent completion percentage and four touchdowns are notable feats.
A few other of Northwestern’s offensive players, including Lawrence, who caught five passes for 112 yards, should be recognized, too. Jones and Siemian’s efforts feel more important because when Northwestern walks onto Ryan Field on Aug. 30, 2014, to face Cal, Siemian will (probably) be its starting quarterback, and Jones its best receiver.
To see them play this well on the final game of this season inspires confidence heading into the next about what they might be able to achieve together. Failing that, Siemian and Jones appear to have developed a strong rapport – the type of QB-receiver connection that, after an offseason of more repetitions, could pay huge dividends in 2014.
The way Jones and Siemian played today makes Fitzgerald’s statement to reporters after the game seem more realistic.
“We’ll be back,” he said in regards to Northwestern’s 2014 season. “I promise you that. We’ll be back.”