Oct. 28, 2013
Members of the media who attended Northwestern's regular Monday news conference were met with a frankness and an honesty by Pat Fitzgerald and a trio of Wildcats who are eager to correct simple mistakes made last Saturday. Skip Myslenski provides details in his Monday report:
The poet T.S. Eliot christened April the cruelest month in his epic poem "The Waste Land." The `Cats, if polled, would surely differ, voting instead to drape that label on October, which they are about to exit with an 0-4 record. In 2012 and 2010, they did manage to go 2-2 in those 31 days, but those falls merely bracketed a 1-4 performance in 2011.
This not only leaves them with a 5-12 mark over the last four Octobers. This also means a full 60 percent (12) of their 20 losses in the last three-plus seasons have come in that month.
But then came this: In 2010 they limped to the finish line of their regular season a mere 1-3 after quarterback Dan Persa went down with a torn Achilles; but then, over the last two Novembers, they roared home a combined 5-2.
"We've been pretty salty in November. That's going to be our approach," Pat Fitzgerald
would say about this at his regular Monday news briefing. "We stink in October, so I don't know what we do next year in the offseason. But we've been terrible in October. I'm going to talk to (university) President (Morton) Shapiro about starting the school year in December. Maybe he'll go for it, maybe he won't. I don't know."
But seriously. Could that record truly have something to do with his players starting classes in late September?
"I don't know," said Fitzgerald. "I'm going to bring in a shrink or something. I don't know. I'll worry about it next year. It's over. Thank goodness. It's Halloween time. My wife's birthday month. One of my son's birthday month. Four great games, two at home. I'm pretty stoked up about where we're at from an opportunity standpoint. I'm not fired up about how we're playing. But we've got a lot of opportunity in front of us. Just got to keep playing, keep coaching the guys."
"No," linebacker Damien Proby would later say when he himself was asked if school has contributed to their poor Octobers. "We come here for both the academic and athletic part. We understand the responsibilities we have as student-athletes. So the fact that we're in school or not in school has no (effect) on our play on the field."
Two plays did have a profound effect on their Saturday loss at Iowa, where the `Cats had climbed back into a 10-10 tie after trailing by 10 at halftime. Now, with under five minutes remaining in regulation, they were on the drive again and facing a first-and-10 at the Hawkeye 30. Here quarterback Kain Colter, a dynamo all afternoon, rolled left for nine yards, which put them well within the range of field goal kicker Jeff Budzien. But behind him superback Dan Vitale, himself also brilliant this day, was flagged for an illegal block on Iowa's Mike Hardy.
"I tried to do a little bit too much on that play," he manfully acknowledged on Monday.
"I'm supposed to cut off the D end, kind of hook him on the outside. He started to get away from me and, you know, I was just playing my butt off all day and I threw a little bit too much out there and got the call. It was the right call. Just a mistake on my part. I just tried to do way too much. Overstepped the bounds of my job. I'm going to learn from it and move on."
"Danny's playing hard," Fitzgerald said of the same play. "You'd like to see him not make that choice. But he's playing his tail off. He gave us every opportunity to win the game. We don't do this, we don't do that. You could point to a lot of things. But we win and lose as a team. He's given us a chance to win the game. That's all I can ask. He's playing his tail off."
Then, on the very next snap, came the second crucial play, Mike Trumpy here fumbling away Colter's pitch on an option.
"That choice is up to him [of his role moving forward] and I have full confidence that Michael will respond the right way. But putting the ball on the ground is unacceptable. He understands he's got to earn that trust back to get the ball. There's time for him to do that. I believe he will."
Redshirt freshmen Stephen Buckley did net 99 yards on 17 carries (5.8 ypc) against the Hawkeyes.
But Trumpy had those costly errors. And Treyvon Green did not play a down. ("He was a little limited last week during practice, so that limited his role on Saturday," explained Fitzgerald.)
And for the second straight Saturday Venric Mark did not dress.
"I've talked to him about all the different variables and we'll just take it day-to-day," Fitzgerald said when asked if he has talked to him about sitting out the rest of the schedule and taking a redshirt season.
So when asked Monday who his tailback will be when the `Cats visit Nebraska on Saturday, it was no surprise that Fitzgerald said, "I think it was pretty apparent on Saturday who the best running back on the field was for us. That was Stephen Buckley. Like I said, competition will be the deciding factor on who's going to play."
When announcing that the coaching staff had named Buckley the `Cats offensive player of the Iowa game, Fitzgerald noted that a full 50 percent of the yards he gained came after contact.
The uneven `Cats offense not only lost those two fumbles on Saturday. It also committed five penalties and allowed six sacks. "That's 13 plays even before I talk about fundamental issues or technical issues," said Fitzgerald when asked about its struggles. "We've got to get those things eradicated. We can't beat two teams on any given Saturday. That's what we've done now the last couple weeks. That's very disappointing."
Colter choreographed that offense for all but seven snaps, missing those after landing awkwardly at the end of a run. "We went in thinking we'd have the same balance that we had in the past," Fitzgerald said when asked about his quarterback rotation. "But Kain was playing so well, we just stayed with the hot hand. We've done that in the past."
The defense, for the second straight week, not only kept the `Cats in the game and gave them a chance to win. They also held the Hawkeyes without a point after both of Northwestern's turnovers.
In the last two weeks, then, the offense has committed five turnovers. One went for a pick six. But after the other four, the defense has surrendered just a single field goal.
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald: "We're just fighting right now. We're fighting and scratching and clawing to find a way to win, and that'll cure a lot of ills. It'll cure the attitude ills. It'll cure a lot of issues you have from the standpoint of finding a way to win. We've given ourselves an opportunity to win the last two games. We just haven't made the plays down the stretch. That's disappointing. But you've got to use that frustration as fuel and if you do that, if you choose to have the right attitude and stay the course, good things will happen. We've got a third of the season left. In our place, the sky isn't falling. It's sunny out. So. You just keep grinding, man. That's what you do. Coach the snot out of the guys this week and get ready to go."
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