Thursday, November 27, 2008

On Location: Fitzgerald Made Proud By Seniors


EVANSTON, Illinois –
The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk has been retired for good to the Northwestern trophy case in a 27-10 victory over Illinois. The symbol exchange started over 60 years ago, and Wildcats’ head coach Pat Fitzgerald reminded us of its first and final resting place, “In 1945, 13-7 Northwestern won, [it’s] very special to our football program to have it here now permanen-tly. We couldn’t be more proud to win one on our last oppor-tunity.”

And win they did. The Wildcats took the lead on their second possession, driving 77 yards with crisp passing by C.J. Bacher (22-of-33, 230 yards, two touchdowns, one interception), capped by a one-yard run by Stephen Simmons (22 carries, 69 yards, one touchdown). The defense ensured they would never look back and Illinois’ ensuing possession was a microcosm of their afternoon: sack, quarterback sneak by Juice Williams, sack, punt. The official tally of sacks was five by the Wildcats (lead by 2.5 from defensive end Kevin Mims) and zero for the Illini.

Ready to take control, North-western scored again, this time on a throw by Bacher, who rolled right and threw left to senior receiver Ross Lane (six receptions, 57 yards, one touchdown). The offense kept an athletic Illini defense off balance with great run-pass play-calling (34 rush, 33 pass for the game) and crisp execution by Bacher. “We usually take what the defense gives us. We took them head on. C.J. played an outstanding football game,” Coach Fitzgerald said.

Illinois looked to turn around a first half owned by the home team (213 yards to 86), deter-mined to get Williams more mobile, either with the option or rolling him out of the pocket to evade the pass rush by the Cat’s front four. They were successful taking the ball 80 yards on 11 plays into the end zone on a Jason Ford (six carries, 12 yards, one touchdown) dive over the goal line to put the game back in reach at 13-7. But Fitzgerald’s defense reinvented themselves in preparation for how Illinois would come out the second half. “Being up 13-0, we knew they were going to make some adjustments, Fitzgerald said. “They actually went to the option where we thought they were going to go. The key is to keep them out of the end zone. You have to rise up in the red zone and that’s what they [defense] did today.”

Williams (20-of-36, 212 yards, one interception) was contained, while still out-gaining Northwestern’s ground game (113 total yards) on his own with 135 yards.

After trading field goals to make it 16-10, the game swung quickly back in Northwestern’s favor as Brendan Smith took a punt 51 yards down to the Illinois 20. This set up the short field and within two plays, Bacher found senior Eric Peterman (eight receptions, 111 yards, one touchdown) in the end zone on an 18-yard strike. Along with a successful two-point conversion, the Wildcats were back in control at 24-10. “All three of our receivers played well. Looks like Ross, Eric, and Rasheed played their best game collectively. To see those 23 young men and those three receivers before the game, they have really stepped up. I couldn’t be more proud of those guys.” Fitzgerald remarked about his veteran receivers and senior squad.

As the game drew toward its conclusion, it was only fitting that Northwestern’s defense stepped up one last time, forcing a fumble. Senior tackle John Gill burst through the Illinois’ front line and sacked Williams. He forced the ball out, which was recovered by linebacker Quentin Davie. The home team tacked on a field goal to make it 27-10.

“They are mentally exhausted, physically exhausted, we’ve been that way nine times, that’s what it takes to win a Big Ten football game. You need to lay it all on the line and not be afraid to trust yourself. And what I’m most proud of was to see those seniors have stayed the course and when you do that you have the opportunity to get better and I think collectively as a team this was our best performance of the year,” Fitzgerald concluded.