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August 31, 2006

Northwestern prevails at Walker's alma mater

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OXFORD, Ohio With his number on their helmets and his nickname over their hearts, Randy Walker's players gave him a two-part tribute.

Northwestern got the win. Walker's widow got the game ball.

Erryn Cobb blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown Thursday night, helping Northwestern finally get beyond two months of mourning with a 21-3 victory over Miami University.

The entire night was a tribute to Walker, the 52-year-old Miami graduate and Northwestern coach who died two months ago of an apparent heart attack. Afterward, players gathered around his wife, Tammy, while coach Pat Fitzgerald handed her the game ball.

"It was the best feeling ever," tailback Tyrell Sutton said.

For Northwestern, it was a chance to celebrate after two months of tears and tumult.

"A lot of emotion was spent all game long," said Fitzgerald, who was Walker's top assistant and close friend. "You kind of got the weight of the world lifted off your shoulders, and you can move on."

The Wildcats' first steps were pretty shaky.

There was a lot of emotion but no points in the first half, when redshirt freshman Mike Kafka played like one. He finally found his stride in the second half, throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Sutton.

Terrell Jordan made the Miami fans head for home with a 4-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that made it 21-3 too much for Walker's alma mater to overcome.

"I think it's hard to get a feel for what a team is going through on the field," Miami safety Joey Card said. "I don't know if they were playing harder because of coach Walker or not."

Walker scheduled the game when he left Miami in 1999, agreeing to make Northwestern only the second Big Ten team ever to visit Oxford. Walker was remembered during a pregame tribute behind one of the end zones, where a plaque with his likeness was unveiled.

There was a moment of silence before the kickoff, and Tammy Walker went on the field for the coin toss. Players from both teams wore a decal with Walker's uniform number and nickname just above their facemasks.

Northwestern players also had a rectangle that said "WALK" sewn on the front of their jerseys over their hearts. He was never far from their minds.

"We talked about it during the game," Fitzgerald said. "He's looking down on us now."

Video and photos of Walker's career were shown on the scoreboard at halftime, lending the feel of a memorial instead of an opener. Two listless offenses provided little distraction in the scoreless first half, a reflection of the mutual inexperience at quarterback.

In Walker's wide-open offense, the Wildcats averaged more than 500 yards per game last season behind Brett Basanez, the school's career passing leader. His replacement started out slowly.

Kafka went 7-for-11 for a measly 26 yards in the first half. In two telling throws, he bounced passes at the feet of wide-open receivers on back-to-back plays.

His counterpart had his own problems. Junior Mike Kokal made only his second career start for Miami, which managed 54 yards in the scoreless half against a defense that finished last in Division I-A last season.

Maybe that was another appropriate tribute. Walker never minded a low-scoring game. A star tailback at Miami, he preferred the slog-it-out style his spread offense was a matter of necessity, not deeply held philosophy.

Cobb, a senior tight end, broke the stalemate by breaking through the line on Miami's first punt in the second half and batting Jake Richardson's kick to the ground. The ball bounced straight up, and Cobb caught it cleanly and ran 8 yards for his first career touchdown.

"Somebody had to make a play," Cobb said. "The opportunity was there and we took it."

Kafka finally settled down and got the Wildcats moving. He led a 69-yard drive finished by his 19-yard touchdown pass to Sutton, who beat Card on a slant and found the ball right there. Kafka finished 13-of-17 for 106 yards, and led the Wildcats with 89 yards on 17 carries.

A relative of one of Miami's most notable families got the RedHawks' points. Nathan Parseghian, a great-grandnephew of Miami graduate Ara Parseghian, kicked a 22-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, but later missed a 37-yard try.

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