Offense takes a while to get started (Football)

Matt Baker

DETROIT – For three quarters against Eastern Michigan, Northwestern’s potent offense looked nothing like the team that racked up 97 points and 1,200 total yards in the past two games.

And coach Pat Fitzgerald knew why.

“Turnovers, holding calls, illegal motion penalties, drops, mis-thrown balls,” Fitzgerald said. “Do you want me to keep going?”

The out-of-sync offense faltered on its first possession, when junior quarterback C.J. Bacher tried to thread a pass into double coverage and was intercepted by Eastern Michigan’s Jacob Wyatt. It was Bacher’s first interception since the Michigan game on Sept. 29.

Although the Wildcats took the ball to the Eastern Michigan 7-yard line on the next drive, Bacher fired two incompletions over his receivers’ heads. NU settled for a field goal.

“I think it was just really sluggish,” senior wide receiver Kim Thompson said of the offense’s start. “We weren’t clicking really until the fourth quarter, which is a good time to start clicking.”

When the passes were on target, NU’s receivers struggled to keep the ball, totaling five drops on the night. Bacher, who had completed 75 percent of his passes the past two games, was 25 of 42 (60 percent) against the Eagles.

Despite other miscues – a dropped snap, a fumble by junior running back Omar Conteh and two sacks allowed by an offensive line that had only given up one in the last two weeks – Bacher said the offense pulled through when it counted.

“We were a little bit out of routine, but good teams will respond to that and make the plays that they need to,” Bacher said. “Although we were down with our execution, we were able to pull out the plays that we needed to.”

SPECIAL TEAMS STRUGGLES

The defense’s strong performance seems even more impressive considering the starting field position NU’s special teams unit continually gave to the Eagles.

Eastern Michigan’s first three possessions began in NU territory, and its average starting field position off of kickoffs was its own 49-yard line.

Fitzgerald said the Eagles had great downfield blocking and the Cats failed to get by single blocks when they had the chance.

“When that happens and you run a wedge return and you’ve got a pretty talented returner, you have opportunities for the big play,” Fitzgerald said.

The Eagles took advantage of those opportunities with a 45-yard return by Dwayne Priest to open the game. Dontayo Gage followed with returns of 61 and 68 yards later in the first half.

Fitzgerald, a former special teams coach, said he was upset with the play of the unit that entered the game seventh in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage.

“I spend an inordinate amount of time on our special teams, and I take it very personal that we didn’t play very well, and we’re going to get that fixed,” Fitzgerald said. “If I’ve got to have Sherrick McManis and Reggie McPherson, Brad Phillips and Adam Kadela and all of our starting guys (in coverage), then that’s what I’m going to do.”

RECORD DAY FOR CONTEH

While junior running back Tyrell Sutton was gaining attention for playing his first downs in six games, Conteh was having a career day.

He rushed for 61 of NU’s 78 yards in the first half – 12 of which came on a rush to the right where he broke two tackles and powered into the end zone to give the Cats a 10-7 lead in the second quarter. Conteh, who has led NU in rushing each of the last five games, finished with a career-high 122 yards.

“Our offensive line was opening up holes, and Omar was making people miss,” Bacher said. “Same with (Brandon Roberson). They both did a good job picking up the slack without Tyrell in there.”

INCHES TO GO

The win was NU’s first when the opponent scored first since Fitzgerald took over as head coach last season. … The Cats have won their last five games against Mid-American Conference opponents. … Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Frymire had his first collegiate reception on a 15-yard pass from Bacher in the second quarter.

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