TicketCity Bowl: New year, same heartbreak

Colin Becht

DALLAS – It’s a story line Northwestern must be becoming frustratingly familiar with: an exciting, high-scoring bowl game that’s decided by a touchdown or less, eventually leading to a Wildcats loss.

In this season’s installment, the offense produced its best performance since junior quarterback Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon against Iowa. Unfortunately for NU, the defense did not make the necessary improvements from the regular season and the Wildcats fell 45-38 to Texas Tech in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl in Dallas.

“Obviously we’re bitterly disappointed that we didn’t find a way to win,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’m proud of our young men’s fight, but there’s no moral victories in our program.”

Freshman quarterback Kain Colter sparked an offensive renewal for the Cats, doing a little bit of everything. Colter rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns, completed 3-of-6 passes for 38 yards and even caught a pass for 32 yards.

“If you’re a quarterback, you have to know what the receivers, the running backs and the linemen do ­­- you have to know what everybody does,” Colter said. “The mental aspect of it is a little easier for me to go play running back or receiver.”

NU came back from a 24-6 halftime deficit, as the Cats closed within a touchdown twice. An 18-yard completion from redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins to sophomore wide receiver Demetrius Fields on fourth down brought the game to 38-31 with just over ten minutes remaining. A pick-six by junior cornerback Jordan Mabin following an 11-yard touchdown pass from Texas Tech quarterback Taylor Potts to wide receiver Lyle Leong again moved the Cats within striking distance at 45-38.

However, the NU defense was unable to get off the field quickly enough, leaving the offense with just 25 seconds for a desperation drive that ended with an interception.

After the loss, NU’s eighth consecutive in a bowl game, Fitzgerald challenged his junior class to take the program to a higher level.

“It’s time they step up,” Fitzgerald said. “If we want to win championships and if we want to win these kinds of football games, that class has got to step up. They’ve got to start making more plays, they’ve got to start leading and they have to be a catalyst for us to go where we want to go.”

NU was routinely abused by the Texas Tech passing attack that allowed the Red Raiders to score on seven of their 13 drives.

Potts completed 43-of-56 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another score.

“They weren’t testing us deep that much,” Mabin said. “They were just doing a lot of dink-dunk passes, and that’s one thing we had to start changing to at halftime. We tried to play a little more aggressive and not allow those short passes to go for six yards and then turn into nine-yard plays.”

Leong was a regular target for Potts, catching 10 passes for 118 yards with two touchdowns.

“It makes my job pretty easy when you have a guy like Lyle catching those third down passes that I always think only he could make, and then actually turning it into a touchdown,” Potts said. “It makes my stats look good, and it helps us win ball games.”

Texas Tech running back Eric Stephens led all rushers with 125 yards on the ground, the bulk of those coming on an 86-yard touchdown scamper.

The Cats started off slowly both offensively and defensively, falling into a 10-0 hole. Despite facing the Football Bowl Subdivision’s worst pass defense, Watkins threw for just five yards in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, Potts set the pace for the day, throwing for 103 yards on 12-of-15 passing over the Red Raiders’ first three drives, two of which resulted in points. Potts completed a 13-yard pass to inside receiver Austin Zouzalik for the first touchdown of the game and kicker Matt Williams booted a 24-yard field goal.

After its offensive struggles early, NU finally got on the board midway through the second quarter on a one-yard run by Colter, capping a 15-play, 78-yard drive. However, NU failed to convert the point after attempt when holder Brandon Williams couldn’t control the snap.

Potts continued his torrid pace, adding another touchdown pass on a six-yard completion to Leong just before halftime.

The Cats fell victim to some trickery by Texas Tech when Zouzalik took a screen pass from Potts and then threw the ball back to Potts, who ran across a wide open field for a 13-yard score.

NU came alive offensively after halftime, scoring on four straight drives to start the half.

Kick returner Ben McRoy fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, and the Cats converted the turnover in three points. The Texas Tech defensive line stuffed Watkins on a quarterback keeper at the one, but senior kicker Stefan Demos converted an 18-yard field goal.

“That fumble recovery was a big catalyst of momentum,” Fitzgerald said.

The Red Raiders and the Cats then traded scores, each reaching the end zone on their next two drives. Stephens broke through the NU defense for his big run before Colter matched the score by recovering his own fumble in the end zone after rushing 15 yards to the goal line. NU made up for the botched extra point with a rollout pass from Colter to senior superback Josh Rooks to convert the two-point conversion.

Potts, however, refused to let the Cats build steam off their touchdown and marched the Red Raiders 82 yards down the field, finding inside receiver Tramain Swindall for a six-yard touchdown completion.

On the ensuing drive, NU utilized a play similar to what Texas Tech used on them for a touchdown in the first quarter. Junior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert took a screen pass from Colter before firing the ball back to him, leaving Colter free to run for 32 yards to the Texas Tech four-yard line. Watkins scrambled for a touchdown on the next play.

With nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters returning next year, the Cats’ expectations for the 2011 season remain high.

“Next year’s going to be a big year, don’t count the Cats out,” junior safety Brian Peters said. “We’ll be back playing in January again next year.”

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