NORTHFIELD, Minn. – Playing under the name University of Northwestern for the first time, the Eagles made the short trip south to face St. Olaf College on Saturday to start the 2013 season. UNW used a third quarter comeback attempt to nearly draw even with the host-Oles, but St. Olaf scored 16 unanswered points in the final nine minutes to win 37-18.
Northwestern, playing without quarterback Josh Balzer (Shorview, Minn./Mounds View) under center for the first time since the 2009 season, needed a little time to get used to its new personnel before finding a rhythm after halftime. In the meantime, St. Olaf came out strong in the first quarter with a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter. Oles quarterback Nate Penz immediately took advantage of the size difference between the Eagles cornerbacks and his top target in 6-5, 230-pound receiver Jake Schmiesing as the two connected for a pair of lengthy scoring plays that put the home team up 14-0.
Tight end Daniel Schultz (Eden Prairie, Minn.) gave UNW its first score of the year five minutes into the second quarter when he caught a nine-yard pass from new starting QB Jacob Fletcher (Moorhead, Minn./Park Christian). Kevin Langmade (Prescott, Wis./Prescott)'s point-after-touchdown attempt failed, but the Eagles were on the board.
With Northwestern punting on its next offensive possession, St. Olaf needed just one play to strike again as Kelvy Coney ran for a 47-yard score that ultimately put the Oles up 21-6. Neither team was able to find the end zone in the remaining five combined drives of the half.
Fletcher, who didn't play at all in 2012 and completed 16 of 23 passes in his sophomore season of 2011, found himself scrambling behind the line often throughout the first half as St. Olaf's defensive front was able to close the pocket rather quickly. The junior completed eight of his 16 first half attempts including a nice over-the-shoulder toss toJoe Sutton (Minneapolis, Minn./Benilde St. Margaret's) midway through the second quarter. While Fletcher was getting comfortable over the course of the initial 30 minutes, Northwestern's rushing attack wasn't as the Eagles had amassed just six yards on 14 attempts.
A change came in the third quarter as the Eagles began to gain some momentum. UNW took its opening possession of the second half inside the St. Olaf five-yard line, but a pair of offensive penalties left Northwestern with a fourth-and-10 situation from the Oles 16 that resulted in an incomplete pass. Positivity continued to emerge for the Eagles though as the defense forced St. Olaf into three-and-out scenarios three consecutive times. UNW took advantage of its next opportunity on offense when Caleb Couwenhoven (Blaine, Minn./Fridley) caught a nine yard touchdown pass from Fletcher to cap off a nine-play, 37-yard drive. Fletcher was able to create more time and space for himself to make plays in the second half as he intentionally wandered out of the box to fend off pursuing defenders.
Northwestern found the end zone again early in the fourth period when Josh Sinnen (Waconia, Minn./Waconia)crossed the goal line on a nine-yard scamper, but the PAT attempt failed for the third time, leaving the Eagles short of St. Olaf on the scoreboard at 21-18. UNW's consecutive scores flipped a switch for the Oles, who needed just 2:05 and five plays to score their fourth touchdown of the game. A fumble recovery by St. Olaf's Ethan Lunning set up another rather quick scoring drive for the Oles, giving the Eagles' non-conference opponent a 35-18 buffer. To make matters worse for the Purple and Gold, Northwestern's final offensive opportunity ended in a safety as the long snap leading to a punt went over Langmade's head and out of the back of the end zone for a safety to account for the 37-18 final score.
UNW finished the game having rushed 35 attempts for 71 yards, a 2.0 yards per carry average, with 69 of them coming in the third quarter. In the same 15 minute period, the Eagles defense held St. Olaf to -16 rushing yards and just one yard passing. Northwestern, who earned 20 first downs in the game compared to the Oles' 15, controlled possession of the football for 33 minutes while allowing St. Olaf to convert just three of 12 third down opportunities.
A blocked 36-yard field goal during the Eagles' second drive of the game was just the start of Northwestern's special teams woes. In addition to the three failed extra point attempts, two UNW kickoffs went out of bounds, allowing St. Olaf to start from their own 40-yard line.
Fletcher finished 24 of 44 for 214 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in his starting debut, connecting with seven different teammates along the way. Couwenhoven and Sutton each caught seven passes, with Couwenhoven's 84 yards and a TD leading the team. Josh Sinnen (Waconia, Minn./Waconia) rushed 18 times for 61 yards.
Defensively for the Eagles, Nathan Van Zee (Moose Lake, Minn./Moose Lake) had a team-high six tackles, followed by five from Cameron Cox (Becker, Minn./Becker) and Cody Kielsa (Howard Lake, Minn./Rogers). Austin Warner (Fridley, Minn./Fridley) picked off Penz in the second quarter after DJ Pyle (Tamarac, Fla./Calvary Christian) forced a fumble to abruptly end St. Olaf's second drive of the game. Penz connected on 19 of his 33 passing attempts for 265 yards in the game. After his two first half scores, Schmiesing added a late-game touchdown to finish with three on the day in addition to his 150 yards receiving.
Northwestern (0-1) returns home next Saturday to face Eureka College in both teams' Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) opening game. Eureka beat Knox College 21-17 on Saturday to retain possession of the Lincoln Bowl trophy. Kickoff at Reynolds Field is scheduled for 1 p.m. CDT.