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Trevor Siemian sparks another rally as Northwestern tops Vanderbilt

Northwestern’s Jeff Budzien (37) watches his go-ahead field goal sail through uprights fourth quarter. | Jim Prisching~AP

Northwestern’s Jeff Budzien (37) watches his go-ahead field goal sail through the uprights in the fourth quarter. | Jim Prisching~AP

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:38AM

The largest crowd (31,644) to attend a Northwestern opener since 2001 was expecting a cliffhanger. Late-game drama has become a trademark of the program. But nobody saw a defensive struggle coming, not after the Wildcats gave up 41 points and 470 passing yards to Syracuse last week.

Balls were flying through the air above Ryan Field, all right, but they were being punted, not thrown, as Northwestern’s usually potent spread offense floundered until backup quarterback Trevor Siemian spelled Kain Colter in the fourth quarter and led the Cats (2-0) on his second game-winning scoring drive in as many weeks en route to a 23-13 win over Vanderbilt (0-2) on Saturday night.

Don’t let the final score fool you. Colter had a 29-yard touchdown run with 1:24 left that made the game look not as close as it was.

“The inner linebacker in me feels great,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said of his defense’s performance.

Siemian’s play means a quarterback controversy is still brewing in Evanston, not that that’s a bad thing. The formula of Colter giving way to Siemian when the game is on the line has been an effective one.

Siemian led Northwestern on back-to-back fourth-quarter scoring drives. Jeff Budzien’s 18-yard game-winning field goal was set up by a 34-yard strike to Rashad Lawrence on third-and-15. Lawrence had a step on his man while streaking down the left sideline. Lawrence barely got his second foot down before a defender’s helmet knocked the ball out of his hands and out of bounds. The catch was upheld on review.

“I just try to focus on the moment,” Siemian said. “That’s what we talk about as an offense as a whole, just taking it one play at a time. I try to do that.”

Fitzgerald insists Colter will remain the starter but acknowledged that the offense was struggling before Siemian entered.

“We were sputtering a little bit,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s a great thing about having that kind of talent at the quarterback position.”

Vanderbilt’s hopes of a winning drive in the final two minutes were foiled when Tyler Scott sacked Jordan Rodgers, forcing a fumble that freshman Dean Lowry recovered with 1:47 left. The defense sacked Rodgers — the brother of Packers quarterback Aaron — three times and held him to 217 yards.

“They are really, really tired of being the Achilles heel,” Fitzgerald said. “They want to be successful. When they make a mistake — and we weren’t perfect, let’s not paint the picture that way — but they want to be great.”

Siemian’s go-ahead drive earlier in the quarter was capped by Venric Mark’s 7-yard touchdown run. Vanderbilt responded when Rodgers hit running back Zac Stacy in the left flat for a 55-yard gain that set up a 26-yard field goal that knotted the score at 13-13.

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