Forman: Physicality helps early, hurts late

Matt Forman

EAST LANSING, MICH. – In two years of covering Northwestern football, I haven’t seen a practice as physical as last Wednesday’s. Most teams only hit on Tuesday. Not the Wildcats. Coach Pat Fitzgerald opted to let his team tackle twice this week.

His message was simple: Last year against the Spartans, we were out-physicaled.

ichigan State pushed us around at the point of attack, resulting in a 17-point advantage it held until the final whistle. We can’t let it happen again. Be physical. Make the extra play. Take the opposite of the Allen Iverson “We talkin’ bout practice, man” approach.

NU responded to Fitzgerald’s mantra, sticking it to Michigan State in the first half of Saturday’s game and controlling the line of scrimmage. The Cats played about as good of a 30-minute stretch as anyone could ask for.

It looked like NU would continue its hard-nosed play after intermission as it moved the ball over midfield on its first possession of the half, when senior quarterback Mike Kafka took the brunt of a late hit. Then, on second-and-seven at the Spartans’ 40-yard line, Kafka scanned the field and saw an open receiver. Kafka threaded the needle over the middle to sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore on a crossing route. Dunsmore caught the pass for a gain of four, but wanted the extra yardage to move the chains. In clock time, Dunsmore was held up for seven seconds. And in yardage, he went roughly 10 yards across the field.

That’s when the attitude of giving the extra 10 percent came back to haunt NU. Dunsmore refused to go down, and four different Michigan State defenders swarmed to him, ripping ferociously at the ball. The ball popped loose, and Spartans linebacker Adam Decker recovered it at his own 36-yard line.

“It seemed like (the referees) let that play go on for about an hour,” Fitzgerald said. “It is what it is. You’ve got to hang on to the ball, and you’ve got to keep control of it.”

From that point on, NU had no control. As quickly as you can say ‘Sparty On,’ Michigan State put 24 points on the board. In the span the Cats ran 12 plays, the Spartans scored four times: three touchdowns and a field goal.

Seven plays after Dunsmore’s fumble, Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins hit Blair White for a 22-yard touchdown pass. NU went three-and-out. Then Cousins found White again, this time on a 47-yard strike. NU went three-and-out. Brett Swenson kicked a 28-yard field goal nine plays later. On the ensuing kick, sophomore return man Jeravin Matthews botched the kick. Larry Caper went untouched for 22 yards off left tackle on the next play.

When the book is written on the 2009 season, it will read something like this: Momentum shifted when Michigan State scored 24 unanswered points at the snap of a finger. For NU’s sake, it better hope the season didn’t turn on that play, too.

There’s reason to think things could go either direction. Just when the defense appeared to have found its rhythm; just when it looked like Kafka could throw for a touchdown pass and the team would win; just when it seemed like NU could win its third straight game; none of those things happened.

Instead, the Cats find themselves with five conference games left. As Ohio State learned the hard way, no game – even Indiana and Illinois – is a definite win.

So after a week of intensity, where does that leave NU? My guess is Fitzgerald is going to put on the shoulder pads and buckle the chin strap. He’s going to take the physicality to his players. The take-it-to-them mentality almost worked this week, but his team has to take a few more steps if it wants to return to a bowl game.

Sports editor Matt Forman is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]