EVANSTON -- It was a little bit of deja vu for coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats in the home opener Saturday.
A week after Trevor Siemian led a late drive to sneak out of Syracuse with a one-point win, the sophomore quarterback was back at it against Vanderbilt in a 23-13 win over the Commodores at Ryan Field.
The Wildcats' offense had sputtered all game until Siemian made his second appearance in the contest with his team down 10-6 in the third quarter. He completed 5-of-6 passes and engineered an 86-yard drive, ending in Venric Mark's seven-yard touchdown scamper.
The Commodores (0-2) promptly marched down the field on the next drive, but the Northwestern (2-0) defense held up in the red zone and forced a field goal.
Rain started to trickle down as Siemian took the ball on the Wildcats' next drive, which seemed to be fizzling out as the clock ticked down under four minutes. But on a third-and-15, the 6-foot-3 Florida native fired a pass toward wide receiver Rashad Lawrence on the sideline, who appeared to come down with the catch before losing control of the ball and fumbling out of bounds.
The referees reviewed the play and after a few tense moments, confirmed the call on the field that it was, indeed, a 34-yard reception and -- more importantly -- a first down.
"I didn't think he held on to it, to be honest with you," Siemian said. "And then it took a while and I thought maybe they're gonna swing it our way. Credit to Rashad. He made a heck of a catch. For him to be able to stick that one was huge for us."
Siemian finished the march down field and Jeff Budzien kicked an 18-yard field goal, his third of the day.
On the ensuing possession, Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott forced a fumble from Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers -- the younger brother of Packers superstar Aaron Rodgers -- and the Wildcats recovered, all but ending the game.
"As a defense, we said we weren't done," Scott said. "We wanted to go out there and get some pressure on Jordan and cause him to throw the ball away or do something. It turned out even better."
Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter put the final stamp on the victory with a 29-yard dash to the endzone after he appeared to be trapped on another third-and-15. Colter finished with 66 yards on the ground and 42 through the air.
"Great to get a win. Very appreciative of our students. The crowd tonight was great," Fitzgerald said of the 31,644 fans in attendance, many of whom stuck around despite the fourth-quarter rain.
"It was the largest crowd we've had for a non-conference opener in a long time. To see the amount of students today with us not being in class yet was something special. You play for that, hopefully represent them the right way and I was just very appreciative of them coming out."
The fans didn't have much to cheer about in the first half, as the Wildcats put up just 85 yards of offense, only 10 of which came through the air. Colter and Siemian combined for an ugly 3-for-10 completion rate.
"Offensively, we fought ourselves today for a while," Fitzgerald said. "I'm not trying to discredit Vanderbilt. They played well and they had a great plan. But we have to throw the ball better, we have to catch the ball better and we've gotta execute better if we're gonna win moving forward.
"That was probably my biggest disappointment going into half, was the plays we left out there...I think we can be better than that. I really do. That's what we talked about at halftime."
Whatever Fitzgerald said apparently worked, as Northwestern outscored the Commodores 20-3 in the second half, including 17 fourth-quarter points. Siemian finished 10-of-16 for 91 yards while Mark racked up 158 all-purpose yards, including 123 rushing.
Rodgers finished with 217 yards, but only 86 came in the second half and 55 of those came on one big play during Vanderbilt's lone scoring drive after halftime.
The Wildcats held the Commodores to just three yards per carry on the night and forced the only two turnovers of the game.
"The defense played outstanding," Mark said. "They kept getting stops and the offense struggled, but once again, the defense stopped them. We finally got it clicking on all cylinders."
"I thought our defense gave us a chance to stay in the ballgame," Fitzgerald said. "I thought we played very well, very sound...We got good pressure on the quarterback and we affected him. There's no question about that."
The Wildcats will be home for the rest of September and head into next week's matchup with Boston College undefeated, no matter how close -- or flawed -- the victories were.
"The Wildcat Way is the way we play," Mark said. "Coach always harps on playing with passion and because we represent the Big Ten, we don't take any opponent lightly. We're going to come every week ready to play the game."