Schecker: At halfway point, which way will Cats go?

Justin Schecker

Since I started following Northwestern football my senior year of high school, the Wildcats have dropped a game they weren’t supposed to lose every year.

The loss to Purdue is this season’s rendition of Duke snapping its 22-game losing streak against NU in 2007, Indiana upsetting the Wildcats in 2008 and Syracuse beating the Cats in a shootout last year.

So where do the Cats go from here? Honestly, I’m very conflicted.

Maybe history will repeat itself and the Cats will respond by playing their best football in the latter half of the season like the past two years. At the same time, I’m uncertain if NU can correct all the flaws that were on display against the Boilermakers.

It’s unfair to point the finger at Stefan Demos for missing two kicks, including the potential game-tying field goal. One week after coach Pat Fitzgerald praised the kickoff and punting units for their performances against Minnesota, Hunter Bates dropped two punts, Stephen Simmons muffed a kickoff and Brandon Williams shanked a punt.

On defense, the main problem hasn’t been poor tackling. It’s been the tendency to have major breakdowns that lead to game-changing plays such as the 67-yard run up the gut by Purdue’s backup quarterback Rob Henry.

Dan Persa completed nearly 75 percent of his passes, but he was under constant pressure. Most of that had to do with insufficient blocking from an experienced, yet underachieving offensive line.

The running game remains nonexistent. One solution is to let Persa throw the rock as much as Mike Kafka did in the Outback Bowl. However, that would require the offensive line to give Persa enough time to locate open wide receivers down the field not named Jeremy Ebert.

“Our bye week comes at a good time,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll refocus, re-energize.”

I agree with Fitzgerald, but there’s a lot that must be corrected and improved in all areas of the game before the Spartans invade on Homecoming.

The Cats are notorious for playing down to their competition and participating in games decided by less than a touchdown. But the NU teams I’ve covered during the Fitzgerald era are also known for responding to adversity and peaking toward the end of the season in their most challenging matchups.

One reason for optimism is that unless the rest of the starting skilled position players in the Big Ten suffer injuries, the Cats will actually have sufficient film on what to expect from their opponents.

It’s not like NU must win out in order to have a shot at achieving the ultimate goal of winning a bowl game. An 8-4 record is a real possibility.

And if the Cats’ impressive 6-1 record in November the last two seasons doesn’t give you hope this team is destined for another bowl appearance, I don’t know what will.

Still, after last week’s letdown and with three more tests against ranked opponents, I can’t pinpoint any upcoming games that should be easy wins. Then again, the Cats were expected to beat Purdue.

Justin Schecker is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]