Sidebar: NU starts slow, makes key halftime adjustment for finish

Danny Daly

CHAMPAIGN – Northwestern is no stranger to slow starts, and Saturday’s game against Illinois was no exception. For the fourth consecutive week, the Wildcats gave up the first score of the game, falling behind 3-0 to the Illini after a 30-yard field goal early in the second quarter.

A 28-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Mike Kafka to senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen with less than a minute before intermission gave NU a 7-3 edge, but coach Pat Fitzgerald said he wanted to see more intensity out of his players. The Cats responded, extending their lead to as many as 18 points before cruising to a 21-16 victory over their arch rivals at Memorial Stadium.

“We had to get our attitude fixed a little bit at halftime,” Fitzgerald said. “I told them after the game, ‘That’s on all of us, we need to prepare better mentally.’ (But) we kept on battling and found a way to get the win.”

Mistakes marred a sloppy first half for both teams. NU and Illinois combined to miss three field goals, shank a punt, throw an interception, turn the ball over on downs and convert just 4-of-16 third downs.

Though the Cats’ defense held the Illini out of the end zone and shut down the passing game, permitting just 34 yards through the air, their run defense had some holes. NU gave up six runs of seven yards or longer.

It wasn’t a poor performance, but it wasn’t at the same level of the previous week’s win at Iowa.

“You could kind of sense it out there, we didn’t have the same energy that we had last week,” senior defensive end Corey Wootton said. “We just had to pick it up. … We kind of came out flat. We have to play the whole game with energy and enthusiasm.”

The halftime adjustments made an immediate difference. The Illini changed quarterbacks, inserting the more mobile Eddie McGee for redshirt freshman Jacob Charest. But the move backfired, as Illinois gained fewer than 50 yards in the third quarter.

“We had to definitely fix the run stopping, that’s for sure – we struggled a little bit early on,” said junior linebacker Nate Williams, whose interception set up the Cats’ touchdown at the end of the half. “(During intermission) we heard that it was possible (McGee) was going to be in at quarterback, so we knew we had to really read option plays and fit on that.”

Offensively, NU racked up an impressive 222 yards in the opening two periods. The air attack accounted for nearly three quarters of that total, including the touchdown.

Still, coordinator Mick McCall’s unit had trouble getting into the red zone. Until the last drive, the Cats’ best two series stalled out before reaching the Illini’s 20-yard line, and both ended in failed field goal attempts.

“We weren’t really going and putting the pedal down,” Markshausen said.

That problem got fixed in the second half, too. NU advanced 99 yards in its second drive of the third quarter, capped off by a Kafka sneak over the left tackle. The team found the end zone again at the end of their next possession, with freshman running back Arby Fields pounding it in from a yard out for the score.

Having played five games decided by seven points or fewer, the Cats have an understanding of what needs to be done to preserve a win. They managed to do so for the second straight week, making up for earlier hiccups against Minnesota and Michigan State.

“We’re a mature team now,” senior cornerback Sherrick McManis said. “We know what to do, we know when we’re at a lull and need to pick up the attitude to do what we’re supposed to do to win the game.”

It might not have been NU’s best game of the season, but it recognized when it had to step up and got the job done in the second half.

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