Sidebar: Northwestern’s win marked by red (and yellow) flags

Jonah L. Rosenblum

EVANSTON — Junior quarterback Dan Persa and the Wildcats don’t turn the ball over very often, with only three lost fumbles in their first three games.

The few times they’ve done so have proven very costly for the Wildcats, a trend that continued in Saturday’s 30-25 win against Central Michigan.

In the first game of the season at Vanderbilt, the Cats were driving down the field in the second quarter up 10-0 when Persa fumbled, allowing the Commodores to score nine unanswered points to end the half.

That fumble let Vanderbilt back into the game, and the Cats pulled out a close win in Nashville, Tenn., by the slim score of 23-21.

Playing its toughest opponent since that opener, NU led Central Michigan 13-6 and had the ball on the Chippewas’ 12-yard line, when Persa threw a ball over the middle right into Central Michigan linebacker Nick Bellore’s hands.

The Chippewas took advantage, marching 88 yards down the field for a game-tying touchdown. Instead of taking a 20-6 lead, the Cats settled for a 13-13 score going into the locker room.

And then with a 30-13 lead early in the fourth quarter with NU ready to turn the game into a blowout, sophomore running back Arby Fields instead fumbled the ball and let Central Michigan back into the game with 12 unanswered points.

When asked about the defense’s ability to prevent a swing in momentum, senior linebacker Quentin Davie referred a joke used by defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to illustrate how a team ought to respond.

“If a firefighter receives a call that there’s a fire, he’s not going to say ‘Who was smoking a cigarette?'” Davie said. “He just goes out and responds to it and that’s what we have to do.”

For the most part, turnovers have been NU’s friend this season. The Cats have forced 12 turnovers while giving it away just five times themselves. They’ve scored 53 points off of those turnovers, with 13 of those against the Chippewas.

Yet, NU’s turnovers have come at critical times, and while the Cats have gotten away with it thus far, it’s hard to imagine that happening in Big Ten play.

Those five turnovers by the Cats have resulted in 19 points, 13 of which came against Central Michigan.

NU was also whistled for a season-high 11 penalties, amounting to 106 yards in a yellow-flag filled affair at Ryan Field. Overall, the two teams were whistled for 19 penalties.

The Chippewas lost 90 yards due to penalties, eclipsing their rushing total (76 yards), a testament to Central Michigan’s sloppiness as well as NU’s powerful run defense.

“I saw the flags flying and I know the refs are going to have to wash their clothes and flags after this,” Davie said. “There were a lot of them and after the second and third one I was just like, ‘Alright.'”

The Cats were called for seven of their 11 penalties in the first quarter.

“It was very emotional coming out because we knew there was a lot on the line,” Davie said. “We need to play with that emotion but bottle it in. A lot of guys were off here and there, and that’s kind of why it was a wild, penalty-ridden first half.”

NU’s defense generally played well, forcing three turnovers, but they also showed an propensity for giving up big plays, especially on the pass. The Cats gave up nine plays of 20 yards or more against the Chippewas.

Their special teams was not without its own woes. Redshirt freshman punter Brandon Williams averaged just 34.7 yards per punt and Stefan Demos missed a 45-yard field goal and had a point-after attempt blocked.

Demos, who was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list in the preseason, has already missed three field goals and three extra points this season.

“It’s encouraging to me to beat a team as good as Central Michigan and still not even play close to our best football,” Persa said. “It’s encouraging but at the same time troubling because we’ve got to get that going.”

Yet, such mistakes, in the future, could spell disaster.

“To win another game the rest of the year we’re going to have to execute a lot better, play with more focus and discipline, and when we do that we’re a tough team to beat,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said, “But, if we play the way we did today … we gave them an opportunity to hang around because of our inability to focus, play with discipline and make plays when they were presented.”

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