Football: Northwestern rallies late to knock off Syracuse

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – With two minutes and 40 seconds left in the game, it looked as though Northwestern would fall victim to the habit that hurt it last season. Two minutes later, the Wildcats found a way to overcome the disappointment of blowing a 22-point lead and hold on for a 42-41 victory over Syracuse on Saturday.

NU held a 35-13 lead with seven minutes and 34 seconds remaining in the third quarter, but watched its comfortable margin wither away in the proceeding 20 minutes. The Orange took the lead with just two minutes and 40 seconds to go, butredshirt sophomore Trevor Siemian led the Cats on a 10-play, 75-yard drive in the two-minute drill to escape with the victory.

“At the end of the day we went 1-0 so it’s definitely gratifying,” senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “Things didn’t happen the way we wanted to, but we got the right result and nothing ever goes the way you plan for it to go.”

Siemian stepped in to lead the final two minute drive after Kain Colter was sidelined with a shoulder injury. The redshirt sophomore stepped up to the pressure and went six-for-seven on the final drive for 62 yards including a nine-yard strike to senior Demetrius Fields along the far sideline, where the receiver needed to drag his toe to stay in-bounds.

The Cats’ lead disappeared quickly because of a lack of pressure on Syracuse quarterback RyanNassib. The quarterback used the three-step drop effectively, firing quick short passes which gained 6-to-10 yards each time. The quick passes helped the fifth-year senior set a new Syracuse record for pass completions in a game with 44. He gained the bulk of his yards however by testing the NU secondary deep and burning them for large gains. After getting two plays of more than 20 yards in the first 37 minutes and 26 seconds of the game, the Orange had five in the remaining time. It could have been more too if the NU secondary not committed five pass interference or defensive holding penalties. Coach Pat Fitzgerald however gave Nassib all the credit for the lack of pressure in the second half.

“You got a fifth-year quarterback over there and he’s a pretty savvy kid,” Fitzgerald said. “He had great understanding of what they were trying to do and how they were trying to accomplish it, move their protection around a bit.

“Ryan did a nice job coming out from under center or catching the ball and looking our guys off. We had some things we had to adjust to in-game and I don’t think we did it quick enough.”

The Syracuse comeback was put a lot of strain on the NU defense as it couldn’t get off the field and the Cats’ offense couldn’t stay on it. Syracuse was 8-of-11 on third downs in the second half, but two of those third-down stops came on the final drive and the Orange converted on one of those fourth-down chances. Meanwhile the NU offense was 1-of-5 on third down conversions in the second half. This led to a 53-31 disparity in the number of second half plays in favor of the Orange and a nearly 200 yard difference in yards in the second half.

The true source of NU’s large third-quarter lead was the defense and special teams. Venric Mark started it off with an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown to give NU the lead 7-6. The junior continued his excellent special teams play on the next punt with a 52-yard return to set the Cats up inside the Orange’s 30-yard line. NU also had three takeaways including two by linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. The sophomore intercepted Nassib in the second quarter and returned it 49 yards, setting up a touchdown pass by junior quarterbackKain Colter. On Syracuse’s first drive of the second half, Ariguzo picked up a fumble and took it 33 yards for a touchdown.

Mark’s play on offense complimented his remarkable playmaking ability on special teams. He caught two passes for 16 yards and a touchdown catch in the front corner of the end zone. He also had 82 yards on 14 carries as NU’s primary running back. His most explosive play on offense came on a 32-yard rush down the sideline when he went around the left side of the offensive line and was pushed out at Syracuse’s 11-yard line.

“He’s dynamic,” Fitzgerald said. “I stand by my statement that I think he’s the best (returner) in the country. You get him into space and he has a chance.”

Fitzgerald said he is happy with how his team was able to win the game, but cautioned there is still a lot of improvement that must be made before NU plays Vanderbilt next week.

“I’m proud of the way our guys fought (and) proud of the way we found a way to win,” he said. “Obviously in between we have a lot of things we need to work on. You’ll hear me say this all week; you make your biggest improvement from week one to week two.”