Evanston, Ill.--Northwestern knew it would be in for a battle against Vanderbilt, but not many expected it to be a defensive battle. Call it a pleasant surprise; the Wildcat defense led the charge in helping NU to a 23-13 win over the Commodores in the home-opener at Ryan Field.
"The defense, today, allowed us to stay in the ballgame," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said to the media. "Our offense has to pick it up."
That wasn't the case one week ago in the Carrier Dome, the site of Northwestern's narrow 42-41 escape. It was the offense which bailed out the defense.
Vanderbilt was held to just one touchdown, two field goals, and only three second-half points. Northwestern was able to muster up enough offense to secure a victory.
Venric Mark's fourth-quarter touchdown gave Northwestern its first lead of the game, capping an 11-play, 86-yard drive. Both teams traded field goals in the following seven minutes, with the scoreboard showing the Wildcats up by three.
Needing one last stand, the Wildcats forced a fumble of Commodore quarterback Jordan Rodgers and freshman defensive end Dean Lowry covered the loose ball.
"As a defense, we said we weren't done," said junior defensive end Tyler Scott, who forced the fumble. "We wanted to go out there and get some pressure on Jordan [Rodgers] and cause him t throw the ball away. It turned out even better."
Looking to clinch the win, Northwestern needed an answer. On a third-and-19, Kain Colter caused confusion for the Vanderbilt defense by changing direction and sprinting 29 yards for the game-securing touchdown.
"Just the way we drew it up," Fitzgerald joked of the touchdown.
While Northwestern's offense supplied the scoring, it wouldn't have been possible without a tremendous effort from the defense.
"I think the defense played outstanding," said junior running back Venric Mark, who rushed for 129 yards. "They kept getting stops and we struggled, but once again the defense stopped them. [The offense] finally got it clicking on all cylinders."
Any feelings left from a concerning win over Syracuse were brought back to life when the Commodores opened the game with a 13-play, 77-yard scoring drive. The worst news was the Wildcats lost top cornerback Nick VanHoose to a lower back injury.
A Jeff Budzien field goal was all the Wildcats could compile in the first half. Vanderbilt appeared poised to extend its lead in the final minute of the half, but Quentin Williams forced Rodgers to fumble inside the red zone and David Nwabuisi recovered the football, keeping the Commordores off the scoreboard.
Northwestern's offense was a struggle, that one week after a 42-point explosion.
Starter Kain Colter and replacement Trevor Siemian combined to complete three passed for 10 yards in the first half, while failing to lead the offense down field. Neither quarterback provided an inspiring performance -- Siemian leading the way with 91 yards -- but each did enough to get the win.
"Offensively," said Fitzgerald, "we fought ourselves for a little while today. ... We have to throw the ball better, we have to catch the ball better, we have to execute better if we're going to win moving forward."
Colter was pulled in the first half when he started 1-for-6, then Siemian completed one pass for a loss of one yard in the first half.
NU continued to rotate between the two quarterbacks. It was Siemian who led the go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, then Colter's run clinched the win.
"We've got two very good quarterbacks," Fitzgerald said. "Both guys want to win, they want to help us in any way that they can, and I think we've got a really good situation there."
With two quarterbacks who provide different strengths, Northwestern doesn't have a quarterback controversy, but instead a tremendous advantage. The system's success is even greater with Colter and Siemian supporting each other on.
"I like seeing him do well and I'm sure for him the same," Siemian said.
NU's win over Syracuse offered more reason for concern than excitement. Following Saturday's win, the Wildcats were overjoyed as they sang the fight song to the student section.
No, the Wildcats weren't perfect, as Fitzgerald stressed in his postgame press conference, but they earned an important win, and have the defense to thank for that.
"There were some things we needed to correct," said Fitzgerald. "But for the most part, we did a great job of playing team defense."
• The attendance at Ryan Field was 31,644, the most for a home-opener since 2001.
• Northwestern has now reached double-figure scoring for 62 consecutive games.
• Receiver Kyle Prater added three catches. Much of the Proviso West football team was on hand to support the school's former star.
• Northwestern's record against Vanderbilt is now 2-1-1 with the Wildcats winning the previous two meetings.