The better team lost

What a gut-wrenching way to start a football season. SU outplayed Northwestern in most phases of the game, but made four or five mind-bogglingly awful plays which gave the Wildcats gift after gift. NU scored two of their touchdowns without the Orange defense on the field, and two more were on drives of less than 30 yards. Let’s catalog, shall we, for posterity:

  • Starting with the worst of the worst: the fumble by Jerome Smith on a dropped lateral pass on which he completely gave up, that was then returned for a TD by the NU defense. There is no excuse for that play. None.
  • Giving up a punt return for a TD.
  • Giving up a long punt return on the very next punt that gave NU a short field.
  • Missing a makeable field goal. I realize 44 yards is not automatic, but in the Dome from the right hash that one ought to be hit.
  • The personal foul penalty on the final drive, turning what would have been 4th-and-7 into 1st-and-goal. Look, I know that it was a bogus call, and in fact Lyn made contact with the QB while he was still inbounds. But he (the QB) was half a step from the sideline and heading in that direction, and he’s a quarterback so he’s going to be “protected” by the refs, even as a rusher. It’s stupid, but it’s the way they call the games now.

And that doesn’t even include the INT that Marcus Sales tipped into the air, because that was more of a fluke unfortunate play. The pass was underthrown and he was trying to pull it in. Sometimes you get those bad bounces. SU had a gift of their own on NU’s botched punt snap early in the game. Of course, the Orange only managed a field goal off of that short field. This is how you outgain your opponent by over 250 yards and still lose.

If you can bear to duck your head below the bitter water of this loss, there were some encouraging signs. The offense was 12-20 on 3rd down conversions, which was a huge problem last season. Similarly, the defense held NU to only 5-14 on their third downs (and 0-1 on fourth downs, not counting the botched punt). The offense finally looked like the New Orleans Saints attack we’ve been waiting for ever since Marrone was hired. 9 different receivers caught passes. They threw a number of deep balls. (A word of warning though: a number of the deep routes were underthrown. In this game, those tended to result in interference calls, as the receiver tried to adjust to the ball and the defender just ran him over. In the future, against better corners, those will be jump balls and possibly interceptions.) The defense did a good job containing NU’s running quarterback, another persistent problem last season. Jonathan Fisher showed off a heck of a punting leg, though he’s going to need a little more hang time, or more aim towards the sidelines, to prevent more returns like the ones we saw Saturday.

SU’s running game was so-so. They broke a few big ones but don’t seem to have the muscle for a sustained ground attack. (Missing Justin Pugh is undoubtedly a factor in that.) I like the Wildcat-esque QB keepers, but I thought they went to that well a bit too often. I love it as a change-of-pace, but it can’t be your most frequently called run play. The pass defense was similarly mediocre. They didn’t give up any long bombs, but NU’s quarterbacks were able to complete nearly 70% of their passes, and the receivers seemed to be getting a lot of additional yards after their catches.

The positive side of what SU showed on Saturday is that they have enough firepower to stay in games against just about anyone. The negative side is that they showed they are capable of blowing it multiple times in the same game. It’s too early to say what will come of this season. They could get it all together and win a bunch of games. Or they could mentally fart all over the field and lose a bunch of games. Either way, missing this one is going to sting for the rest of the fall.

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