Hail to the purple victors

Jake Simpson

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Heading into halftime, Northwestern looked like a team in trouble.

Michigan had pushed the Wildcats around on both sides of the ball and held a 14-7 lead. The Big House, where NU had not won since 1995, was rocking. And the weather was miserable, a frigid mix of rain, snow, and wind.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald preached a simple message to his reeling team: Respond.

“We knew what we had to do in the second half,” senior quarterback C.J. Bachér said. “We knew we had to respond.”

Led by a resurgent Bachér, NU responded in a big way in the second half. Bachér led a suddenly explosive offense to two third-quarter touchdowns, and the defense came up with a pair of critical stops in the final five minutes to preserve a gutsy 21-14 win, NU’s second victory at Michigan in the last 49 years.

“This was a big program win for us,” Fitzgerald said.

The Cats (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) came out firing in the second half after spinning their wheels in the first two quarters. Bachér took the offense down the field on NU’s opening drive of the third period, finding senior wide receiver Ross Lane for a 17-yard touchdown that tied the score at 14.

After the defense forced a three-and-out, Bachér was at it again. The senior captain, who sat out the past two games with a right hamstring injury, directed a four-play, 68-yard scoring drive.

Bachér put the Cats in front with the team’s longest pass play of the season. Senior wide receiver Eric Peterman ran a skinny post and beat Michigan safety Brandon Harrison deep. Bachér fired a perfect strike to the senior wideout, who caught it at the 20-yard line and raced into the end zone untouched.

The 53-yard score put the Cats on top, 21-14, and proved to be the winning touchdown.

“C.J. threw a great ball,” Peterman said. “Protection was great. It was an eleven-man operation.”Bachér finished with 198 yards passing and two touchdowns, his best output since NU’s 48-26 win over Purdue four weeks ago.

With the lead in hand, the Cats turned to their defense, which turned up the heat on three different Wolverines’ quarterbacks in the final two quarters. For the fourth time this season, NU held an opponent scoreless in the second half.

“We were a little upset about the way we played in the first half,” junior defensive end Corey Wootton said. “It got us fired up, and we said we were going to come out and play our style of football in the second half.”Twice in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines (3-8, 2-5) drove deep into Cats’ territory. Twice, the NU defense turned them away.

Sophomore cornerback Jordan Mabin made a diving interception in the end zone to halt Michigan’s first drive and then turned the spotlight over to fellow cornerback Sherrick McManis. With the Wolverines at the Cats’ 34, the junior dove in front of wide receiver Greg Mathews, knocking the ball away and forcing Michigan to go for it on fourth down.

When starter Nick Sheridan’s desperation pass fell incomplete, the Cats had all but sealed their first victory over Michigan since 2000. While McManis’ play stood out, the defense’s last stands were a team effort.

“We knew that somebody had to make a play, because it was going down to the wire,” senior defensive tackle John Gill said. “So many people made big plays.”

While the Cats were virtually mistake-free in the second half, they were forced to fight through a series of miscues in the first two quarters. On the first drive of the game, Bachér tried to force a third-down pass to Lane, who was double-covered. The Wolverines’ Stevie Brown picked off the ball and returned it to the NU 8. Michigan attempted a 23-yard field goal, but it was blocked by Wootton.

The Cats took an early 7-0 lead on sophomore running back Stephen Simmons’ 21-yard touchdown run.

Making just his second start, Simmons took a simple draw play on third-and-18 and burst into the end zone for the first rushing touchdown of his career.

When the final whistle sounded, NU walked off the field with its eighth win, the program’s best record since an 8-4 season in 2000.

For fifth-year seniors Bachér and Lane, the win was especially sweet. The duo set a goal before the 2004 season of beating every team in the Big Ten. On Saturday, they achieved that goal.

“It’s huge for me,” Lane said. “It’s like a dream come true.”

[email protected]

Comments