Football: Northwestern ekes out 30-25 win against Central Michigan, opens season at 4-0

Colin Becht

It may have been the most sobering way possible to start off a season 4-0.

Northwestern pulled out a 30-25 victory over Central Michigan on Saturday. But with key turnovers and costly penalties, coach Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t in a festive mood.

“In the locker room right now, I promise you, it wasn’t Mardi Gras,” he said.

Leading 30-13 in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats had the game all but wrapped up. However, a fumble by sophomore running back Arby Fields and sloppy pass coverage allowed the Chippewas back into the game. NU put out the fire by recovering an onside kick with less than two minutes remaining to wrap up the game.

After being tied 13-13 at the half, the Cats dominated the game for the next 16 minutes, scoring 17 unanswered points. Junior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert caught his second touchdown of the game on a 25-yard pass from junior quarterback Dan Persa, followed by a 13-yard run from junior running back Jacob Schmidt.

“We kind of had a lull there in the third quarter, when we didn’t play very well and lost our composure a little bit,” Central Michigan coach Dan Enossaid. “They did a very good job, and the game got away.”

But after allowing just 34 passing yards in the third quarter, the Cats defense surrendered 145 in the fourth, including a 25-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Radcliff to receiver Kito Poblah that put Central Michigan within five.

“We gave them an opportunity to hang around because of our inability to focus, play with discipline and make plays when they were presented,” Fitzgerald said. “When you’ve got an opportunity, you’ve got to make the play. Period.”

Radcliff finished the game with 347 yards passing and two touchdowns.

Equally damaging was the number of penalties the Cats committed. NU was flagged 11 times for 106 yards, including several illegal substitution penalties for simply not getting players on and off the field quickly.

“That’s on us as coaches first and foremost,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to get our guys to play with more focus and discipline. I think today was a little out of character.”

Still, as Schmidt said, “a win is a win, as sloppy as it was,” and the Cats began their season 4-0 for the second time in three years.

Persa produced another quality performance, completing 23 of 30 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He finally showed that he was human when he threw his first interception of the season to linebacker Nick Bellore. Bellore grabbed a pass over the middle at the Central Michigan five-yard line late in the second quarter.

“I made a bad play fake and it didn’t suck the linebacker down, and he just dropped right into the lap of where I was throwing,” Persa said. “As soon I let it go, I knew it was going to get picked.”

Ebert hauled in five passes for 83 yards with two touchdowns. Both times, Ebert found separation over the middle on post routes, scoring from 24 and 25 yards out.

“Their safeties were getting a little wide,” Ebert said. “We kind of saw that and it opened up.”

Fitzgerald may soon find himself with a running back controversy, as backups Schmidt and redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy both made cases for the starting job.

Trumpy, who entered the game in the second half, rushed 12 times for 53 yards.

Schmidt gained 32 yards on six carries and found the end zone twice. Meanwhile Fields, the de facto No. 1 back, struggled for his second consecutive game with seven carries for 16 yards.

Fields handled the ball just twice in the second half, gaining no yards on one attempt and fumbling on the other.

“I’m sure he’s disappointed in himself,” Fitzgerald said. “I would be too if I were him.”

While the Cats’ secondary got picked apart in the fourth quarter, the front seven once again shut down the running game. Running back Paris Cotton, who ran for more than 200 yards a week ago against Eastern Michigan, was held to four rushes for negative one-yard rushing with a fumble.

The Chippewas gained just 76 yards on 23 carries, an average of 3.3 yards per carry. Senior linebacker Quentin Davie created his fourth turnover in three games with a forced fumble, and sophomores David Nwabuisi and Quentin Williams both intercepted passes. Junior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo also blocked two kicks, denying an extra point and a 40-yard field goal.

Williams’ interception set up Ebert’s second touchdown, which came on the very next play.

Another promising aspect from the game for NU was the attendance. With students back for their first game and a plethora of promotions, the Cats drew 30,075 fans, a 56 percent increase over NU’s second home game last year.

The students had not yet returned for that game in 2009 against Eastern Michigan.

“It was great to see the student section so loud in our first opportunity at home,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought they were absolutely outstanding and I can’t thank them enough.”

The Cats will have a week to clean up their mistakes in the secondary and on penalties before beginning Big Ten play at Minnesota next Saturday.

“I like when we don’t do things well,” Fitzgerald said. “Because then I get to go back to work a little bit more.”

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