* Flush it. That is one of Pat Fitzgerald's standing orders. Exult for a day or grieve for a day following a game, and then put that one behind you and look ahead to the next. That is what he constantly tells his 'Cats. But how do you do that, just how do you do that after suffering a defeat as wrenching as the one they absorbed Saturday in Ann Arbor? "It's rough," center Brandon Vitabile admitted early Monday afternoon. "You just trust. You know the guys are out there battling. It's a war. You see it in everyone's face, how down everyone is afterward. You don't even want to talk about it afterward. You listen to coach right after the game and hear what he has to say. But the bus ride home is just silence. There's no one talking, there's no one joking around. That's what it should be. You should really hurt from it.
"Yesterday, you come in, watch film with everyone, there's some positivity going on. We were right there. We played a lot of good football on Saturday. We did a lot of things well. We did some things not so well. But it's good to see that. That the work we do put in pays off and maybe we're a step away, a block away, a catch away. So just keep working as hard as possible. People understood we fought hard and we just weren't able to come out with it. So we've got to keep fighting and hopefully we'll come out with one this week."
* Fitzgerald had preceded Vitabile into the interview room for his weekly press conference, and that was just the theme he propounded during his time at the microphone. Staying the course. Keeping to the grind. Focusing inwardly. Fighting on. There was no criticism of his team here. There was just the opposite. There was a barely-concealed admiration that he verbalized on any number of occasions. "You don't have to play perfect if you play with maximum effort," is what he said on one of those occasions. "Walk (the late 'Cat coach Randy Walker) always said, 'Football's not a game of perfect.' That always resonates with me. I appreciate your guys' questions. But I don't know how to coach a guy to be perfect. Just coach him to be the best he can possibly be, and I think our guys are fighting their tails off to do that. We've got to coach them better. We've got to give them more tools. But I don't fault our guys' effort in any way, shape or form. I think they're giving everything they've got. They just got to keep grinding."
"Our focus, as we talked earlier in the year, is always on us," he said on another of those occasions. "I've got to get our guys to play the 60 full minutes. We've done that seven times times and there's three we haven't. That's not consistent enough for what our expectations are around here. That's our focus right now. Just to play 60 minutes of football. You know, you guys, you asked me in the bye what do I know about our team. It was solidified again on Saturday. Our guys'll fight their tails off. Brady (Hoke, the Michigan coach) and I were talking after the game. That was a slugfest, two teams going at each other. If I'm not a coach at Northwestern, or if I'm not a coach at Michigan, if I'm just a fan watching a football game, that was a heck of a football game to watch."
"We're close," he said on one more of those occasions. "This young team's growing up. There's no moral victories in our ball club. There's a lot of frustration in the way we haven't been able to finish. But what's done is done. Now you go back to the process of getting prepared, doing it consistently and hopefully playing our best game of the year Saturday (at Michigan State). We've got a lot to play for. Not a lot of guys who've worn the purple and white have won eight football games, and to get to the next level, you've got to get to eight first. So this is a special opportunity for us. We understand we've given up the opportunity to be in our championship game. But the senior class has done a lot and hopefully we can send them out with a big, ol' exclamation point. They're playing pretty hard right now."
* Fitzgerald's positivism, in fact, extended even to his analysis of that play on which Saturday's affair finally turned. It unfolded with the 'Cats in their basic nickel package of three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. It came on a call he referred to as a double-post wheel route. And it ended with Wolverine receiver KOMING Roundtree corralling a Hail Mary after it was tipped by 'Cat corner Daniel Jones. "As I look back, and I judge Daniel's decision, he went up to make a play. I can't fault a guy for going to make a play," he said here.
"I think Hank (defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz) did the math. I think there were 180 plays in the game times 22 players. That's like three-thousand, six-hundred something plays. (Actually, 3,960.) So. We win as a team and unfortunately we come up short of a team. There were a lot of plays prior to that that we should have made, could have made, and could have coached our guys better on and we didn't. But I understand why we talk about that. I get it. But I think Dan went up to make a play.
"Could we have run different coverages? Yeah. We could do a lot of different things. We could have blitzed. We could have done a lot of things. But I'm not that kind of guy. We had a plan. We had a plan we put together during the week. We expected to see that route and that was the planned coverage that we wanted to have in for it. I would have been really disappointed if I saw a guy open. You know what I mean? I didn't see that. I just saw a young man make a great play and you've got to tip your hat."
When asked the status of running back Venric Mark, who was injured late against Michigan, Fitzgerald said, "I expect Venric to play." When asked about corner Nick VanHoose, who missed his second straight game on Saturday, he said: "Like I said after the game, he was close last week. We'll see how it progresses this week. I've got to see some things in practice. But, more importantly, he needs to see some things in practice, if that makes sense. He's grinding at it.". . . 'Cat superbacks Tim Riley and Dan Vitale were surprise ball carriers against the Wolverines. "There's some different things we want to do to have success running the ball and give defenses multiple looks," Fitzgerald said of that unusual move. "We want to continue to add things as we go along each week.". . . Each of the 'Cats' three defeats this season came after they entered the fourth quarter with a lead. But, said Fitzgerald, "I don't think there's a commonality. I think, more so, we've got to stay the course and stick to what our plan is. It's been pretty darn good. So just stay the course."
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, looking ahead: "I thought the guys came in and understood what happened. We were in a dogfight. We scored early, got down, got back, got down. We just need to find a way to make that one-more-play. We've done it a bunch this year. I think five of our games have been close and we've done it. We've been unfortunate in a couple games against some pretty darn good teams. I think that shows you how close we are. But we've got to get over that hump. That's what we've got to do better as coaches. Help the guys get over the hump. That starts and ends with me. But morale is high, the attitude's great. Right now we've got seven in the bank. Huge challenge this weekend. But also a huge opportunity for us. We've responded in the past. We're going to need our best response of the year Saturday."