WildcatReport expert and former Northwestern star quarterback C.J. Bacher breaks down the Wildcats' season-opening 23-21 win over Vanderbilt.
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My game ball goes to Dan Persa. Anybody who watched the game saw Persa go from a young, inexperienced quarterback to a quarterback who can lead the Cats to their first bowl victory in more than 60 years. (The complete analysis of Persa's performance is in the QB Breakdown section below.)
Others in consideration for the award included Brian Peters and Al Netter. Peters flew around the field all game, mitigating the damage of some potential 50- to 60-yard game-changing plays and keeping them 5- to 15-yard gains. If you were a Peters family member, all you had to do to find him was look for the ball.
Netter anchored the offensive line. This year's line is an athletic bunch and Netter, a captain, leads the way, allowing Persa to use his athleticism to get out of the pocket and make plays.
There were other prettier plays that I could choose from, but the game came down to a potential game-tying two-point conversion. Unlike Persa and the Cats offense, which came through when it counted, Vanderbilt lost its composure with the game on the line. When the snap skipped back on the ground, the Cats pounced on the ball and secured the win.
What Went Well
Coach Pat Fitzgerald, offensive coordinator Mick McCall, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and their position coaches deserve a lot of credit for the victory. They came out with a game plan, trusted it, and stuck with it despite extenuating circumstances within the game. They made all the right decisions, including running down the first half clock, throwing when Vanderbilt was expecting run, blitzing in the right situations, etc. I personally would have gone for the score instead of running out the clock, but that's why they pay Fitz the big bucks, and he made the right decision.
On the flip side, Vanderbilt's coaching staff made mistakes throughout the game. The first mistake was putting the game in quarterback Larry Smith's hands in the second half instead of pounding the running game with their quality backs. The second mistake was kicking the ball deep instead of going for the onside kick with two minutes left in the game. I was sitting with former Northwestern president Henry Bienen at this point in the game and he put it best: "Field position doesn't matter at this point in the game." Not only would they have had about a 30% chance of recovering the ball, but one first down by Northwestern would have meant the end of the game, whether it was from the 20-yard line or the 40-yard line.
The running game for the Cats needs to get better. The pass blocking was outstanding but having a quick, athletic and undersized offensive line also means that the holes aren't going to be quite as big. Therefore, it's crucial to find and hit the holes quickly and powerfully.
The good news: Jacob Schmidt played a good game and Arby Fields has three more games before the Big Ten schedule starts to iron out some wrinkles in his performance. Fields has extraordinary talent; he just needs to avoid taking a bad play and making it worse. It's the difference between high school and college football -- the same moves that create a highlight-reel touchdown in high school can turn into a 10-yard loss in college. Once he can make the right strides, he will be a top-tier Big Ten running back.
I spoke with McCall after the game and told him that his gameplan was transparent to me and that he executed it perfectly. The plan was to build Persa's confidence, move him around, make him comfortable, and then come out in the second half and stretch the field. Persa stepped up to the challenge.
The only mistake he made all game was on a third-and-7 completion to Sidney Stewart in the third quarter. For those of you who know defensive schemes, Vandy was playing quarter-quarter-half in the secondary, with the half on the cover 2 side into the boundary (short side of the field). With no flat threat, the cornerback to the boundary was able to sink into the passing lane. The best bet would have been to dump the ball to the back or to throw the ball into the Vanderbilt student section. A perfectly placed ball always beats good coverage, though, and this critical Monday Morning Quarterback compliments the perfect pass that Persa threw.
Besides that play, Persa made the right decisions all game long. That is the kind of consistency it's going to take to take the Cats to the top of the Big Ten. I told Dan before the game that I had very high expectations for him this season. Being around him for two full seasons (2007-08), he showed me how good of a young quarterback he was. I don't want to overhype him too much, but his performance makes me very optimistic about the 2010 Wildcat football season.
Next Up: Illinois State
The Cats need to work on establishing the running game and keeping the swarm going on defense. They also need to find a way to get the ball into Drake Dunsmore's hands more often.
But the pieces are in place for win No. 2.
C.J. Bacher started 28 games at quarterback for Northwestern from 2006-08. He ranks third in school history in both passing yardage (7,319) and touchdowns (43), and he set the NU single-season passing mark by throwing for 3,656 yards in 2007. He played one season for the New York Sentinels of the UFL and is currently the president and managing partner of CKB Ventures LLC, a staffing and recruiting firm.