Football: downed at the Dome

Matt Forman

Photos courtesy of Court Hathaway for The Daily Orange

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – It felt like a game that would come down to the last possession. And it was. So when Northwestern had the ball at midfield with just more than a minute left in a tie game against Syracuse, it looked like the Wildcats would collect their third win of the season. But they didn’t.

On third-and-10 at the Syracuse 47 and 59 seconds on the play clock, senior quarterback Mike Kafka dropped back, scanned the defense and stepped up in the pocket. Everything was going right, until Kafka decided to throw the ball. That’s when Syracuse safety Max Suter, who had zone contain in the cover three scheme, stepped in front of Kafka’s pass intended for Demetrius Fields. Suter picked the ball off near the left sideline and returned it 22 yards to the NU 39. Six plays and 16 yards later, Ryan Lichtenstein connected on a game-winning 41-yard field goal, giving the Orange a 37-34 win.

“It was a game of big plays, and when big plays happen, it is hard to get in a rhythm,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But we didn’t make the big play that mattered at the end. We didn’t get the job done.”

Instead, Syracuse did, and the Orange escaped with their first win of the season after losing to Big Ten opponents Minnesota and Penn State to open the season. Prior to the loss, NU was 19-5 in its previous 25 games decided by seven points or less.

Though it wasn’t the case early on, NU (2-1) and Syracuse (1-2) played an evenly matched game. Each team held the ball for at least 28 minutes, ran at least 68 plays and racked up at least 450 yards of total offense. That stat line would help explain why the game took on the feel of a track meet. The longest possession either team had was for 4:05, an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive for the Cats early in the fourth quarter. That drive was capped by a three-yard playaction pass from Kafka to Fields and gave NU a 34-27 lead.

While the Cats had a fourth quarter advantage, they didn’t have a lead in the game until 3:59 remaining in the second quarter, and that lead lasted for all of two-and-a-half minutes. Their next lead came with 4:52 left in the third. The script was reversed from the first two weeks of the year, when NU jumped out to an early lead against its first two opponents. This time, Syracuse sprinted out of the Carrier Dome’s tunnel to a 17-0 edge.

“We got socked right in the face in the first few minutes,” Fitzgerald said. “We kept battling and gave ourselves a chance to win the game.”

NU finally reclaimed the lead when offensive coordinator Mick McCall went to his bag of tricks. Facing second-and-six in Syracuse territory, Kafka passed the ball to senior wide receiver Andrew Brewer behind the line of scrimmage. Brewer, a former quarterback, threw back across the field to Kafka. The senior gunslinger caught the pass on the run, broke several tackles and slammed into the endzone for a 24-yard reception.

“That was an awesome play call,” Brewer said. “We’ve been keeping that in our back pocket for a while. Mike and I traded places on that one. Shoot, we might need to throw Mike the ball some more.”

Kafka also scampered in from three yards out early in the second quarter. He took the option keeper off left tackle and ran over an intended tackler, notching the Cats’ first points of the game.

While sticking to his normal quarterbacking duties, Kafka completed 35-of-42 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns. Adding in the rushing and receiving touchdowns, Kafka is the first Big Ten player with at least one passing, rushing and receiving touchdown since Penn State’s Zach Mills in 2004.

But the record-breaking performance wasn’t the main thing on Kafka’s mind after the loss.

“I don’t know what records I’m breaking, but it doesn’t matter right now,” Kafka said. “We lost.”

Playing on the road in front of a hostile crowd of 40,251 fans was hard, but was made harder by several self-inflicted wounds. The Cats turned the ball over four times to Syracuse’s three. Matters were also made more difficult by the fact that four starters – running back Stephen Simmons, wide receiver Sidney Stewart, linebacker Nate Williams and cornerback Sherrick McManis – did not play due to injury. Backups wide receiver Jeravin Matthews and cornerback Justan Vaughn were also out.

Without Simmons, NU struggled to get anything going on the ground as it rushed 28 times for 58 yards. Without McManis and Vaughn, the Cats also struggled to defend Syracuse quarterback and former Duke basketball point guard Greg Paulus, who completed 24-of-35 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns. Most of that passing yardage went to receiver Mike Williams, who caught 11 passes for 209 yards and two scores.

“We know what we’re about,” Kafka said. “We still think we can win every game no matter what.”

NU will get a chance to prove that next week against Minnesota.

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