Kafka takes opportunity and runs with it

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNEAPOLIS -- Pat Fitzgerald's first significant decision as Northwestern's head coach came on Aug. 28, 2006, when he named Mike Kafka the team's starting quarterback.

Kafka went on to start the first four games of a star-crossed season for Northwestern. The team struggled to bounce back after the sudden death of head coach Randy Walker earlier in the summer. The Wildcats went 2-2 with Kafka at the helm, but a hamstring injury against Nevada sent the freshman to the sidelines.

He remained backstage until Saturday.

Starting quarterback C.J. Bacher had injured his hamstring a week earlier at Indiana, and though Bacher was available for the game against No. 17 Minnesota, Fitzgerald and his staff decided after Wednesday's practice that Kafka would get the start.

Kafka was ready Saturday, and his performance helped Northwestern to a 24-17 upset of Minnesota. The 6-3, 210-pound junior shattered a school record for quarterback rushing with 217 yards and also threw two touchdown passes to go along with two interceptions.

Kafka had runs of 53, 38 and 30 yards in the victory.

"He does it every week in practice," freshman wideout Jeremy Ebert said, "so it doesn't really impress us too much."

Minnesota shut down running back Omar Conteh, leaving the ball in the hands of Kafka, who Fitzgerald called "a true dual-threat quarterback."

"It shows great maturity on Mike's part," Fitzgerald said. "As a competitor, you never want to learn patience. It's the worst word in the world for a competitor. Mike's been patient for his opportunity."

How hard was the wait?

"You're a play away," Fitzgerald had continued to remind him. "You don't know when that opportunity's going to arise. All you control is if you're ready or not. And if you're ready, you go out there and take advantage of the opportunity. If you're not, you get exposed. That's the great thing about football, and it mimics life.

"We all get opportunities in life. Either we're ready for them or we're not."

Consider: Since the Nevada game in 2006, Kafka had completed 8 of 14 passes for 38 yards and no touchdowns.

"Us as an offense grew from there, and individually I definitely grew from that, too," Kafka said. "Since then, we've had a lot of adversity. We've had a lot of good things happen, too."

Many of those good things happened on the game's opening drive, as Kafka led the offense 78 yards in seven plays. He set the tone with an 11-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and hit several short routes.

Then, on third-and-5, with Minnesota cheating up to the line, Kafka found Ebert for a 36-yard score over the top of the defense.

"It was a very strong statement," Wildcats safety Brendan Smith said. "It put energy and life into our team.

"When he did that, everyone knew that, 'OK, it's a ballgame. We're going to win this game.'"

With both Bacher and starting running back Tyrell Sutton sidelined, Northwestern operated in a more conservative scheme, trying to avoid turnovers at all costs.

The Wildcats ran on third-and-19 to set up a field goal. They ran on third-and-17 inside Gophers territory, settling for a punt. Another trip to plus territory ended with a run on third-and-11. You could say Northwestern played not to lose on offense -- a risky proposition on the road. But it worked.

"It's different," Ebert said of the scheme, "but we trust our coaches and we trust our game plan."

Despite the no-mistakes plan, disaster struck for Kafka in the second quarter, as Minnesota cornerback Traye Simmons jumped his pass to Ross Lane and walked in for a touchdown. It was exactly the type of error an undermanned Northwestern offense needed to avoid.

But Kafka bounced back two possessions later, racing to the Gophers' 2-yard line after recognizing an open running lane. On the next play he found Josh Rooks in the end zone, putting Northwestern back on top.

"When adversity hits, just flush it and move on," Kafka said. "There was still a lot of game left.

"I love the way our team responded today."

Last week's loss to Indiana mirrored Wildcats setbacks of past seasons -- Duke in 2007, New Hampshire in 2006. The game took a greater toll with the losses of Sutton and Bacher. Many waited for the collapse to begin.

But Saturday's win ensures Northwestern of a postseason bid -- the first hands Fitzgerald shook coming out of the locker room belonged to representatives of the Insight and Champs Sports Bowls -- and elevates hope for the future with Kafka under center.

"From adversity, you can really respond and respond greatly," Fitzgerald said. "A lot people were jumping off the bandwagon last week, a lot of people telling us just how bad we were. We don't worry about those things."

Fitzgerald left the Metrodome singing a Jimmy Buffet song.

Pretty soon, others might start to change their tune about his team.