NU’s forward momentum not enough (Football)

Tania Ganguli

Northwestern’s game against Indiana on Oct., 11 was supposed to be easy. It was anything but that, as the Wildcats squandered a 17-point lead, only to eke out their first Big Ten win of the season in overtime.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was the first time NU showed grit, and this gave them the momentum they needed to win the games they were supposed to, and even one they weren’t. The Cats finished 6-6, 4-4 Big Ten.

Early in the season, when the Cats lost momentum they couldn’t get it back. But the victory in Bloomington, Ind., gave the Cats enough confidence to upset Wisconsin — a win which propelled them to an improbable six-win season. Still, NU was not able to overcome self-inflicted wounds throughout the year. And even when they limited their errors, the Cats weren’t always able to come out on top.

That’s how NU ended its season with a heartbreaking 28-24 loss to Bowling Green in the Motor City Bowl. The Cats just didn’t seem able to match the Falcons’ intensity late in the game.

But the season’s woes began much earlier.

In the second game of the season, quarterback Brett Basanez threw three interceptions in a row against Air Force and the Cats never came back. They lost at home, 21-20.

“We were gonna beat them, we knew it and we come up one point short,” junior running back Noah Herron said. “Pretty much after that game, I could see Brett and our team’s confidence go down. We got it back eventually.”

They didn’t get it back against Ohio State because they didn’t seem to have it in the first place. They lost, 20-0.

The confidence still wasn’t back against Minnesota. NU’s defense held the Gophers’ offense in check for just one quarter before it melted into something that looked oddly familiar — the 2002 defense, which was the second worst in Div. I-A.

Then came Indiana and a bye week, resulting in what seemed like a rejuvenated squad.

The Cats also were fueled by a dislike for the Badgers, and memories of an inspired win over them in 2000, when Wisconsin was a top-five team.

“We went to Wisconsin on a high,” Herron said. “For us to be on that high we had to beat Indiana.”

The Wisconsin upset did not start a trend. Their other two wins came against pathetic programs — Illinois (1-11, 0-8 Big Ten) and Penn State (3-9, 1-7 Big Ten).

The Cats caused a lot of their own problems throughout the season. After Michigan routed NU, Herron said they shot themselves in the foot. He and his teammates said that every week, and it was usually true.

It started with penalties. The Cats then became what Wright called a “fumbling machine” after they coughed the ball up five times against Purdue. Ball security had been a strong point for the Cats until then, but they ended the season with 29 fumbles, losing 13.

Interceptions also plagued the team as Basanez threw 12 of them, to only four touchdowns. NU was at its strongest when Basanez handed the ball to a running back, like during the second half against Illinois when the Cats didn’t throw a single pass. The running game improved throughout the season, while the passing attack suffered. The main problem was injuries to their top three receivers — Ashton Aikens, Mark Philmore and Roger Jordan.

The running game took a hit when Wright was slowed by an ankle injury. But Herron and the offensive line stepped up to help when they could. They couldn’t against Michigan, Purdue or Ohio State’s superior defenses, but Herron ran all over Penn State for a career high of 180 yards.

The offensive line grew together with freshman center Trevor Rees, sophomore Zach Strief and juniors Ikechukwu Ndukwe, Trai Essex and Matt Ulrich. The five, who made up one of the biggest offensive lines in the Big Ten, grew together throughout the season and Walker decided to stick with the same five for every game. By the end of the season Strief couldn’t stop talking about how much they loved each other. And the running backs couldn’t stop talking about how good they’d become.

“Zach’s the motor that makes the offensive line go, but they’re really a unit,” Wright said. “It’s really fun to run behind them.”

The Cats also had grown up defensively, and at times their improvement over last year was impressive. But against powerful teams, the defense couldn’t do much. After their dismal performance last year, defensive players and coaches said they owed the offense some help. Yet this year it was the offense that didn’t produce.

“We owe it to each other as a team,” Herron said. “Offense or defense, next year we need to say we owe it to the team.”