Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Cats go out with a whimper (Football)

CHAMPAIGN – For 11 games this season, Northwestern grew comfortable living on the edge.

Heroic overtime performances secured victories against Michigan State and Minnesota. Cataclysmic fourth quarter collapses sealed losses against Purdue, Iowa and Michigan.

But Saturday, the edge was gone, as No. 19 Illinois shellacked the Cats 41-22, all but squelching NU’s hopes for a bowl bid.

“Coming into today, I wanted to win this game more than any game I’ve been apart of,” junior wide receiver Eric Peterman said. “Looking back at the game, it’s just frustrating. It’s one where our backs were against the wall, in a do-or-die situation, and we just didn’t come through. We didn’t come to play today. Illinois outplayed us.”

In its moments of success in 2007, NU (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) could point to three constants: achieving success on third down, playing smart football and remaining in games come the fourth quarter.

Those three constants fell apart against the Illini. On the game’s opening drive, two completions by junior quarterback C.J. Bacher gave NU a first down at the Illinois 48. On 3rd and 10 from that spot, the nation’s 16th-ranked third down offense stalled as an errant pass by Bacher landed directly in the arms of a blue shirt, with no white jerseys in the vicinity.

NU finished the game a season-worst 2 of 10 on third down.

“We’ve got to be able to execute better,” Bacher said. “They were able to keep their drives alive, and we had a lot of drives where we got pushed back.”

Those “pushed back” drives were inundated with self-inflicted mistakes – a product of undisciplined play, in the eyes of coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Cats were penalized seven times for 57 yards in the first half – the most since NU’s memorable loss to Duke in mid-September. The Cats averaged 4.5 penalties coming into Saturday’s contest.

While NU struggled to find its smarts, Illinois (9-3, 6-2) and its sixth-ranked rushing offense went to work. Facing 3rd and 3 on their opening drive from the NU 21, the Cats had a chance to hold Illinois to a field goal. But sophomore quarterback Juice Williams displayed poise, finding wide-open running back Rashard Mendenhall in the flat for a 19-yard gain.

On the next drive, NU had the Illini pinned deep, facing 3rd and 6 from their own 20. When Williams’ pocket broke down, he found a huge opening in the center of NU’s defense, streaking seven yards for the first down.

“When you have a coverage called, when you have a front called, and the guy doesn’t do his assignment, that’s typically a lack of discipline or the lack or inability of us as coaches to be sure our guys understand exactly what the scheme was,” Fitzgerald said.

Illinois, which entered the game with an 8-0 record when ahead at halftime, extended its lead in the second half with its ground game, running 32 times on 39 offensive plays. Despite the large lead, the holes in NU’s defense continued to mount, as the Illini tacked on 174 more rushing yards in the final 30 minutes.

As the Fitzgerald-dubbed “best back in the country,” Mendenhall exasperated the Cats’ defense with 27 touches. On the flip side, NU’s primary backfield weapon saw a frustrating season end. Junior Tyrell Sutton was held to 71 yards on just 13 carries.

“I don’t know what can be said,” Sutton said of the .500 finish. “(You can make) a lot of excuses, but excuses don’t explain, and explanations aren’t an excuse. We didn’t come out with the best attitude and we lost, and that’s what we got.”

What the Cats’ did gain, however, is a long offseason that will bring questions of whether the team improved in ’07. After a 1-3 finish down the stretch that saw him throw 11 interceptions, Bacher took a positive outlook toward the future.

“We’re going to be hungry,” Bacher said. “We came in with high expectations this year and fell a little bit short of them. It came down to a lot of close games we didn’t pull out, but we’re right there.”

Reach Chris Gentilviso at [email protected].

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Cats go out with a whimper (Football)