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Northwestern beats Syracuse 48-27: rapid reaction

What happened

In an underwhelming weekend slate of college football games, Northwestern-Syracuse was one of a few contests that brought the promise of intrigue, if not narrowly-decided outcome. That speculation was rooted more in hope than fact; people wanted Northwestern’s injuries to catch up to them, wanted Syracuse to play above itself after showing flashes against Penn State last week, to spice up an otherwise boring Saturday. Northwestern turned outside viewers away early and gave them little reason to stay invested in a convincing 48-27 win.

The offense couldn’t have started any better: quarterback Kain Colter orchestrated a four-play, 75-yard drive in less than a minute to put the Wildcats up 7-0, and they never really looked back from there. Jeff Budzien added two field goals, and Trevor Siemian led two scoring drives to stake out a 34-7 lead heading into the break. The game was effectively won.

(For more detailed first-half thoughts, read our first-half recap).

A glimmer of Orange hope surfaced early in the second half after quarterback Drew Allen hit tight end Kendall Moore for a 16-yard touchdown, and coach Pat Fitzgerald grew visibly distraught after three consecutive Wildcats drives ended in punts. Northwestern had hit a rut in its offensive execution, it seemed. Then Tony Jones got free for a 47-yard touchdown, and all hopes of a Syracuse comeback – made all the more real after last season’s thriller in the Carrier Dome – were finished. Treyvon Green added a 28-yard score in the fourth quarter, finishing with 66 yards on 14 carries, in another solid game to follow up last week's two-touchdown breakout.

I would be remiss not to mention the defense, a unit criticized (somewhat unfairly) for giving up 455 passing yards to Cal last week. It stepped up against the Orange, picking off four passes, allowing just 133 rushing yards and limiting Allen to 279 yards on 41 attempts (6.8 YPA) and just one touchdown. The defensive line was particularly impressive, and the linebackers continued to show why they are, with little doubt, the most athletic and well-rounded position group Northwestern has.

This Syracuse team is not very good, but it's better than the two teams Northwestern will face over the next two weeks (one of whom, Western Michigan, is currently losing to FCS lightweight Nicholls State in the third quarter). The Wildcats needed two pick sixes and some heady offensive improvisation after Colter’s injury to survive Cal. They merely needed to execute their gameplan, avoid mistakes and play sound football to handle the Orange. Whether the blowout win was more a product of Northwestern’s performance or Syracuse’s general ineptitude, dominating an ACC opponent the Wildcats barely edged last season is another positive turn in an impressive two-week start to the season.

What went well: The passing game.

You hear it all the time: Northwestern is an “option” offense. It couldn’t pass even if it tried. Really? The 30 completions, 375 yards and four touchdowns Colter and Siemian combined for Saturday respectfully demur. The Wildcats passing attack was hitting on all cylinders, and perhaps the most encouraging part was Colter’s accuracy – long considered a huge flaw in his quarterbacking abilities. Colter finished 15-for-18 for 116 yards and a touchdown (and added 87 yards and a score on the ground). The “Syracuse’s passing defense isn’t great” caveat applies, sure, but at what point should we control for opponent quality, and measure the winning team’s performance on its face? Can we separate how a team performs from the influence the opponent’s shortcomings may have had on that performance? Maybe. Maybe not. But Tony Jones -- who finished with a career-best 185 receiving yards -- and the rest of the passing offense had a huge day. That means something.

What didn’t: The third quarter

In the first half, Northwestern dominated on both sides of the ball. The offense moved the ball effortlessly, and Syracuse struggled to get anything going against the Wildcats defense. Halftime came and went, and so did Northwestern’s intensity. The Wildcats scored zero points in the third quarter, and allowed a quick touchdown at the beginning of the period. I’m picking at small hiccups here, but after a dominating performance like this, it’s hard to be too critical about anything substantive. The rigor of your watchful eye may disagree, and Fitzgerald will definitely point out inefficiencies in Monday’s press conference, but all in all, it’s hard to ask for a better showing than what Northwestern displayed Saturday.