NU

Northwestern Wildcats wide receiver Christian Jones (14) points to the stands after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter against Syracuse. (Rich Barnes/US PRESSWIRE / September 1, 2012)

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Northwestern literally had to sweat out this 42-41 victory. The Wildcats took a three-touchdown lead Saturday in the steamy Carrier Dome but watched it melt away.

But after Syracuse scored 28 straight points to go ahead 41-35, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald turned to quarterback Trevor Siemian, and he delivered.

He sold the officials on a late hit near the sideline. Then he fired a perfect 9-yard strike to Demetrius Fields in the back-left corner of the end zone to put the Wildcats ahead by a point with 44 seconds to play.

NU’s beleaguered defense then held off Syracuse’s final burst, helped by Tyler Scott batting down a pass.

And NU fans could finally breathe again after a game that lasted almost four hours. The Cardiac Cats were back blowing big leads last season – and almost did the same Saturday.

NU coach Pat Fitzgerald improved to 7-0 in season openers despite an NU defense that allowed Ryan Nassib to complete 44 of 64 passes for 472 yards and two touchdowns.

Venric Mark had the game of his life. He returned a punt 82 yards for a score, set up another touchdown with a 52-yard punt return, made a diving touchdown grab and rushed for 82 yards. All in his first career start at tailback.

The 82-yarder was the first time a Wildcat “housed it” since Marquice Cole took one back 81 yards against Northern Illinois. Combined with his second one, Mark broke NU’s record for punt return yards in a game.

Two weeks ago, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Mark: “In my opinion, he's the best kick and punt returner in the country.”

That proved prescient.

But Fitzgerald’s teams has numerous issues to deal with before hosting Vanderbilt next Saturday. NU’s secondary was horrid, and the right side of its line made life miserable for quarterbacks Kain Colter and Siemian.

Colter had a fine game, completing 14 of 21 passes for two scores. But it’s telling that Fitzgerald turned to Siemian in crunch time.

tgreenstein@tribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein