RedHawks thwarted by Cats’ ball hawks, NU wins 16-6

Danny Daly

For the second straight week, an opportunistic defense sparked the Wildcats to victory. This time around, it just wasn’t the usual suspects making the big plays.

Even though senior defensive end Corey Wootton’s sprained ankle limited him to a few snaps and senior safety Brendan Smith left Saturday’s game early with a hand injury, Northwestern forced four takeaways and beat Miami (OH) 16-6 at Ryan Field.

“It was great to find a way to get a win,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The defense really stepped up and carried over the momentum from a week ago.”

Replacing Smith, sophomore safety Brian Peters was a major factor in creating two of the turnovers. Sophomore linebacker David Arnold stood in for the sidelined Ben Johnson and recorded a sack in his first career start, while sophomores Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli shared a sack filling in on the defensive line. The Cats finished with eight sacks and have produced 10 turnovers in their past two games.

Fitzgerald showed faith in his offense when he opted to receive after winning the coin toss, and senior quarterback Mike Kafka and company responded by putting three points on the board. A 23-yard strike to junior wide receiver Sidney Stewart put the Cats (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) in field goal range, but the drive stalled there. Junior Stefan Demos connected from 46 yards to give NU a 3-0 lead.

“I wanted the ball,” Fitzgerald said. “In (the coaches’) Friday checklist meeting, I said, ‘I want the ball, and I want to put a drive together and get our offense started.’ For the most part, we did that.”

A RedHawks turnover near the end of the first quarter led to the Cats’ second score.

Facing fourth-and-long in NU territory, Miami (0-6, 0-2 MAC) coach Mike Haywood left his offense out on the field instead of sending out his punting unit. Redshirt freshman quarterback Zac Dysert was hit by senior safety Brad Phillips as he threw, and junior linebacker Nate Williams came up with the interception after Watt got a hand on it. Three minutes later, Kafka’s six-yard scramble put the Cats ahead 10-0.

But that was the last of the scoring in the first half. Both teams blew chances in the second quarter – Demos had a 40-yard field goal attempt blocked, his first miss of the year, and NU later failed to convert a fourth-and-one at the Miami 27.

The RedHawks’ poor clock management before intermission prevented them from getting any points out of their most productive possession of the game. Miami advanced 53 yards to the NU 16 in less than two minutes, but Dysert was tackled in-bounds and Miami had no timeouts to stop the clock.

“That would have been a big momentum shift, it would have given them some hope,” sophomore defensive end Vince Browne said. “It was a (redshirt) freshman quarterback, and if he could have taken that one back, he would have.”

Dysert ended up completing fewer than half of his passes, though he did make some plays on his feet. Discounting the sacks, he had an even 100 yards on 14 carries.

Neither offense could get anything going at the beginning of the third quarter. The Cats had the ball in RedHawks’ territory on each of their first two series, but were unable to put the game away.

Shortly after Peters picked off Dysert three plays into the half, Miami forced its lone turnover of the day. Safety Anthony Kokal intercepted Kafka when he underthrew Markshausen on a shot at the endzone.

“We’ve just got to execute a little better,” said Kafka, who had 191 yards on 15-of-31 passing. “Throwing the pick is something we definitely could have done without.”

With NU’s offense struggling, the defense continued to pick up the slack. Junior linebacker Quentin Davie pried the ball loose from Dysert around midfield, and Peters returned it inside the Miami 30-yard line.

“I was thinking touchdown,” Peters said. “I tried to stiff-arm (Miami running back Thomas Merriweather), but he got a hold of me.”

Kafka eventually scored on a third-down sneak from one yard out, but a high snap on the extra point attempt kept it a two-possession game.

The 16-point deficit proved too much for Miami to overcome. Dysert was intercepted for the third time early in the final quarter – Miami’s nation-leading 22nd turnover of the season.

The RedHawks added a touchdown with just more than a minute remaining, but they failed on the two-point conversion and did not recover the ensuing onside kick.

While the Cats were pleased to notch their fourth victory of the season, they would have liked to keep the RedHawks scoreless.

“It was very disappointing,” Peters said. “A shutout would have been awesome, but we’ll take the win.”

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