Syracuse, NY -- When Syracuse overcame a 22-point deficit, scoring 28 unanswered points, it would have been easy for the Northwestern Wildcats to hang their heads. The season-opening game had played out a similar script to heartbreakers of the past.
The Wildcats had some magic in store, though, as they scored the go-ahead touchdown with 40 seconds remaining. Syracuse was unable to muster one last drive down field. The Cardiac 'Cats survived the scare.
"It feels great to win," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I'm incredibly happy to be able to get out of here with a win. Now, we move forward and find a way to get the guys coached up and get better for next week."
Sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian stepped in for Kain Colter and orchestrated a touchdown drive spanning 75 yards, ending in a nine-yard score to senior receiver Demetrius Fields.
Colter, who completed 14 of 21 passes for 135 yards, was removed for the final drive after suffering a shoulder injury in the second quarter, which he had played through. It was the coaches' decision to place Siemian in the game for the final drive.
"When you look at where we're at in that situation, we just felt like Trevor gave us a good opportunity to go out and find a way to win," Fitzgerald said of the decision.
Siemian was ready to leads the Wildcats to victory after receiving the call from his coaches.
"We knew what we were capable of," said Siemian of the offense. "We're pretty confident in our two-minute. We were able to execute."
The game-winning drive may have had a different result had it not been for a late hit called on Syracuse cornerback Keon Lyn. Flushed out of the pocket on 3rd-and-15, Siemian scrambled toward the sidelines but received a push as he crossed the sideline.
The Carrier Dome crowd erupted in boos toward the officiating crew, knowing Northwestern would receive new life. Did Siemian sell the penalty to the referees?
"I don't know," Siemian said with a big smile. "I was just doing my job, I was running out of bounds."
The game-winning touchdown catch by Fields came on a fade route to the corner, similar to his go-ahead score in NU's win over Iowa in 2010. Fields was unaware if he was in bounds initially, but was confident in the placement from his quarterback.
Earlier in the game, however, Fields dropped a pass from Colter, and that was fresh on his mind on the final drive. He was looking for redemption.
"If I hadn't gotten another chance, I would have been crushed," said Fields, who had eight catches on the game. "I was thinking, 'catch the ball,' because I knew I would be open. Glory to God."
The positive outcome for Northwestern had the players grinning ear to ear, but not without a major sigh of relief first.
The Wildcats led by a 35-13 margin with more than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. That lead began to dissipate.
Syracuse gained some confidence after senior quarterback Ryan Nassib led a 14-play touchdown drive, capped off by a seven-yard strike to Marcus Sales. After Northwestern's offense went three-and-out, the Orange struck again on offense; Nassib connected with Jeremiah Kobena for a 50-yard score, burning NU senior cornerback Demetrius Dugar.
Another Northwestern drive stalled, leading the Orange back out for what would be another march to the endzone. Nassib found Kobena again, beating Dugar. However, Dugar would break up a pass as the Orange attempted a game-tying two-point conversion.
With momentum on its side, Syracuse silenced Northwestern's lifeless offense and continued its comeback. Nassib connected with receiver Christopher Clark for a 20-yard, go-ahead touchdown strike. A two-point conversion gave the Orange a 41-35 lead.
It appeared as if Northwestern let its down with a sizeable lead in hand, a learning experience for a young team.
"There may have been a small lack of focus when we went up at that point," said senior linebacker David Nwabuisi. "That's something we've got to work on; we can't let up. In that point in time, it was time for us to put them away, but they just came back."
It was far from an inspiring performance for Northwestern's defense, a unit which hoped to improve after allowing more than 30 points on seven occasions in 2011. However, the issues were ever present on Saturday, even with new personnel on the field.
Syracuse tallied 596 yards of offense while Nassib threw for 470 yards and four touchdowns while completing 44 passes. Fitzgerald points the blame on the unit's mindset when handed a challenge from the Orange.
"We hit adversity, and we did not respond well enough to it," Fitzgerald said. "In times of adversity, you've got to respond boldly."
Northwestern was led through much of the game by new full-time starting running back Venric Mark. The junior recorded an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown, putting the Wildcats on the board in the first quarter. Later on, he hauled in a 21-yard touchdown catch from Colter.
Mark tallied 281 all-purpose yards, including 84 in the rushing attack, and was a key piece of Northwestern's scoring output.
Northwestern now turns its focus to Vanderbilt, the home-opener at Ryan Field. The team's week of practice will provide an opportunity to improve. Fitzgerald believes a football team takes its biggest strides between the first and second game.
The Wildcats leave Syracuse with a thrilling victory and urgency to improve.
"That group is excited that we found a way to win; that was the goal," said Fitzgerald. "It's also a very hungry group knowing we, by far, did not play out best football."