Sidebar: Kafka key in Cats’ road effort

Matt Forman

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The first and last time Mike Kafka touched the ball, bad things happened. Almost every time he touched the ball in between, it turned to gold.

On Northwestern’s first play from scrimmage, Kafka took a five-step drop and was sacked by Derrell Smith for a loss of nine yards. Kafka couldn’t hold on to the ball, and Syracuse recovered the fumble. Five plays and 21 yards later, Ryan Lichtenstein connected on a 43-yard field goal. On what turned out to be the Wildcats’ final possession, Kafka rolled out left, threw across his body and was intercepted by Max Suter. That play set up a 41-yard game-winning field goal by Lichtenstein.

“We did a lot of good things offensively, but there are two plays we’d like to have back,” Kafka said.

Outside of the fumble and interception, Kafka was sacked five times and fumbled once more. But the Cats wouldn’t have been within a rainbow’s distance of the lead without him.

As NU fell behind early, the senior quarterback was forced to pass the team out of the 17-0 hole. And he did just that by completing a school-record 16 consecutive passes in the first 27 minutes of the game. He kept firing on all cylinders throughout the game, connecting on 35-of-42 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns. He also established a school record for completion percentage with 83.3 percent, which could have been better-he threw the ball away intentionally three times. If it wasn’t enough of a record-breaking performance, Kafka more than doubed his previous single-game high of 192 passing yards.

Kafka lulled the Orange secondary to sleep with a series of short passes to start the second quarter, then hit wide receiver Andrew Brewer down the left sideline for his first aerial touchdown of the season. The 39-yard strike was one of five Kafka passes that went for more than 20 yards, though the short passes helped open up space downfield.

“Obviously we blitz a lot,” said Smith, Syracuse’s senior linebacker. “He made a lot of quick throws, and the yards just came with the quick throws. He completed a lot of quick passes from those quick throws.”

On the next Cats possession, Kafka put touch on a pass in the middle of a deep zone, lofting the ball between the linebacker and the safety. He found sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore in front of the goal line on a streak for the 22-yard score.

Arguably Kafka’s most impressive drive, however, came at the start of the fourth quarter. The gunslinger led NU on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that lasted more than four minutes; Kafka completed six-of-six passes on the drive. He capped it off with a three-yard strike to redshirt freshman Demetrius Fields after faking a handoff to Jacob Schmidt and rolling out right.

With starting running back Stephen Simmons sidelined due to injury, the Orange tried to make NU one-dimensional. They stacked the box and brought pressure, but Kafka stood strong in the pocket.

“We’ve had success when teams decide to bring not only the kitchen sink, but also the whole house at us,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Mike did a good job of avoiding pressure and spreading the ball around.”

He also did a good job of spreading his scoring around. The Cats’ first touchdown of the game came courtesy of a three-yard option keeper. NU’s first lead of the second half came on a 24-yard pass from Brewer to Kafka, his first career reception.

Despite the loss, the do-it-all senior’s mentality on the receiving touchdown summarized his all-around day.

“Just score,” Kafka said. “Just get the ball in the end zone, whatever it takes.”

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