Football: Cats easily dispatch of the Panthers

Colin Becht

Despite entering Saturday’s contest without its starting quarterback or running back, Northwestern still made sure its matchup with Eastern Illinois was the cakewalk it was meant to be, dominating the Panthers on both sides of the ball in a 42-21 win.

“We got outmatched,” Eastern Illinois coach Bob Spoo said. “What can I tell you? We just couldn’t stop the run.”

The Wildcats (2-0) opened a 35-7 lead early in the second half against their FCS opponents, allowing coach Pat Fitzgerald to insert many of his second-stringers into the game.

Sophomore quarterback Kain Colter had another outstanding day both on the ground and in the air, leading all players with 109 yards rushing on 15 carries while completing 10-of-13 passes for 104 yards.

“I don’t know how good (senior quarterback Dan) Persa is – he’s an All-American – but this kid (Colter) is unstoppable,” Spoo said.

The Cats dominated the Panthers (1-1) on the ground, as NU rushed for 320 yards on 67 carries. Freshman Treyvon Green scampered for 70 yards and a touchdown while senior Jacob Schmidt also got into the end zone and picked up 57 yards on the ground. Four different NU players exceeded 50 yards rushing as the Cats handed the ball off for their second highest number of carries in school history.

Sophomore Adonis Smith was one of NU’s 50-plus rushers, but Smith missed most of the fourth quarter after leaving the game with a right leg injury. Fitzgerald didn’t give Smith’s status but said he would have an update on Monday.

NU’s high rush total epitomized the simplicity of the playbook on Saturday, which consisted in large part of basic runs up the middle.

“Once we got into the game and the inside runs were working I think (offensive coordinator Mick McCall) probably thought, ‘Hey, we can just stick with this and not show some of our other stuff for weeks to come,'” Schmidt said. “That will benefit us down the road.”

NU’s defensive starters allowed only two scores, the first coming on a 72-yard touchdown pass enabled by blown coverage by safety Ibraheim Campbell. The redshirt freshman stuck with the under route, leaving no one covering wide receiver Kenny Whittaker deep.

“We fully expected that route,” Fitzgerald said. “Now we get to go in there and teach tape of exactly how not to play it. We did a terrible job coaching it during the week because both safeties were supposed to take the vertical (route).”

With the exception of two big plays, the Cats stifled the Panthers, holding them to 13 first downs. On the opening drive of the game, senior linebacker Bryce McNaul bated quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo by showing blitz, then dropped into coverage and snagged Garoppolo’s throw. Junior linebacker David Nwabuisi recovered a fumble after Garoppolo couldn’t hang on to a shotgun snap on Eastern Illinois’ next drive.

“It was a great interception by (McNaul),” Fitzgerald said. “He had great discipline on his drop.”

Just as the Cats won the battle of the trenches on offense, the defensive line did the same to prevent the Panthers from getting any momentum running the ball. While Jimmy Lera broke a 76-yard run long after NU had replaced many of its starters, the Cats had previously allowed a mere 51 yards rushing.

NU also made defensive improvements to get off the field, allowing just four third-down conversions and stopping the Panthers on both of their attempts to move the chains on fourth down.

“We controlled the line of scrimmage and we were much better on third down, which are some signs for improvement,” Fitzgerald said.

After deferring on the coin toss, NU quickly seized momentum to jump out to a 14-0 lead after a quarter of play.

The NU offense clicked on nearly every down early and took advantage of great field possession caused by the two first quarter turnovers.

Colter got the Cats on the board on their opening possession with a five-yard scamper. He set himself up for the score with a 25-yard scramble in which he evaded two tacklers before breaking into open field down to the one-yard line.

Schmidt punched the ball in from the goal line on NU’s next drive, earning his first touchdown since the Cats’ 20-17 loss to Purdue last October. Schmidt’s run capped off an eight-play, 65-yard drive that lasted only two minutes and 22 seconds before concluding with seven points.

NU rediscovered its offensive groove after stalling on two straight possessions and marched the ball 58 yards its third score of the game. A draw play opened a hole for Colter to run up the middle from five yards for his second rushing touchdown of the day.

Green picked up his first career touchdown on the Cats’ next drive, punching the ball in from the two yard-line and the Cats put the game away with a third score from Colter to put NU up 35-7 early in the second half.

In many of the offensive starters’ last drive, Colter scored his third touchdown on the ground, bouncing off a big hit by safety Nick Beard before diving into the end zone on an eight-yard bootleg.

Colter, who gave way in the third quarter to backups Trevor Siemian and Evan Watkins, admitted after the game that he had not slid enough on his runs as Fitzgerald had asked him to do. Fitzgerald even had New York Yankees manager and NU alum Joe Girardi call Colter earlier this week and tell him that if he didn’t learn to slide more, Girardi would be happy to offer his son as a coach. Girardi said his son taught New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez the intricacies of the slide.

“During the game, especially in the red zone, you smell blood and you know you want to score a touchdown, so you’ve got to get those tough yards,” Colter said. “But definitely in the open field, when maybe it’s two defenders on me, I need to just get down, get the yards that I can and just slide.”

The Panthers found the end zone for the second time on Saturday with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that was aided by two pass interference penalties on the Cats in the end zone.

“We’ve got to eliminate the red zone penalties,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s going to hurt us down the road.”

A.J. Woodson capped off the drive by plowing into the end zone from two yards out.

Colter returned to the game briefly following the touchdown but allowed Siemian, and later Watkins, to get some snaps in the fourth quarter. Both sides traded scores in the fourth quarter as even Eastern Illinois used the blowout to get some work in for its lower guys on the depth chart.

After NU racked up eight straight rushing touchdowns to begin the season, Siemian tossed the Cats’ first passing touchdown early in the fourth quarter, finding junior running back Tyris Jones in the end zone. The touchdown was the first of Siemian’s and Jones’ careers.

“Tyris has got a ton of passion,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s not afraid to mix it up a little bit so I was ecstatic for him.”

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