Northwestern can't hold lead against Orange

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Football can be a cruel game, as Mike Kafka found out Saturday night at the Carrier Dome.

Northwestern deserved to lose to Syracuse. The Wildcats were uncharacteristically undisciplined, committing a flurry of penalties. Their banged-up defense had no answer for Greg Paulus or Mike Williams. And their special teams once again struggled.

Kafka was the only reason Northwestern stayed in the game, and yet his mistake is the one people will remember. The senior quarterback had a career night, completing 35 of 42 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns. He completed his first 16 passes and went 18-for-19 in the first half.

But his 42nd attempt, a terrible decision that resulted in an interception, led to the Wildcats' demise. Northwestern had the ball in plus territory with the game tied, but a critical drop by Andrew Brewer and Kafka's interception gave Syracuse one final chance, and the Orange cashed in.

The defense lost this game for Northwestern, and while injured cornerback Sherrick McManis would have made a huge difference against Williams, the performance was inexcusable. Twice Northwestern had leads, and twice the defense let Syracuse answer easily. Leading 34-27 in the fourth quarter, Northwestern failed to stay with Williams and allowed an easy touchdown.

Kafka's performance and the team's rally from a 17-0 deficit are positive signs, but if the defense doesn't get healthier and a lot better, it'll be a very long season for Pat Fitzgerald's crew. These are the games that prevent Northwestern from getting much respect around the Big Ten, and the loss will test the team's resolve.