Nov. 8, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
Twenty-seven. That, Pat Fitzgerald said Monday, was the number of tackles his 'Cats missed against Penn State, which explains well enough just why the Nittany Lions were able to run wild. "We stuffed the run pretty well all year. We just didn't do a good job Saturday. . .," he would add. "It's not real hard, it's not real complicated. You play defense, you tackle people. Your number gets called, you're at the point of attack, you've got to tackle. . . You do that, guys go on the ground and you stop the run."
Will he be reminding his players of that number as they prepare for Iowa this week?
"I don't think I need to say it a whole lot more," said Fitzgerald. "They're fully aware. They lived through it. We talked about it today and showed them not only what happened. But more importantly we showed them the drills that we did last week, and we showed them opportunities where they were in the same position as in practice. In other games, when we were in the same position, we made those plays. So, you know, we'll be fine."
You've actually shown films of the practice drills?
"Not yet. But we will as we move forward this week. . . We've tackled really well all year. But we didn't take great angles. When we got there to the point of attack, we didn't come to balance and continue to close the distance. All the fundamental things we drill. We just have to get back to what we've done well."
That, to repeat, was 27 missed tackles. "We just lost our focus out there at times, also a little bit in our technique, and a little bit a lack of aggressiveness," defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said when asked about that.
Will that number be motivation in the week ahead.
"No, no. We're flushing all of that. We know we need to improve, so we're just going to play with a chip on our shoulder this week and get better."
Can a performance like that become contagious?
"I don't think so. Not with the type of program we have. We always find ways to improve after seeing the bad things that we've done. So, like I said, we'll be better."
Fitzgerald I on what happened: "A couple things. Both sides, third-down efficiency. It was the worst we were on third down, both sides. Our tackling on defense. We missed more tackles on Saturday than we've missed in the previous five or six games combined, which is something we obviously work our tails off with. Then, most importantly, just our inability to make big plays. We had three opportunities that all would have been big plays. The fourth down play in the end zone. We had our hands on the ball for a potential interception. And we had a chance for a blocked punt. Those three plays we were 0-for-3. Those were the plays we made in the first half and, in the second half, we didn't make them."
Were there similarities in this loss and the previous late losses to Michigan State and Purdue?
"I think there's one common theme. We didn't make a lot of plays in the second half of both those games. We were one play away. We were driving to win the game against Purdue and shot ourselves in the foot. Against Michigan State we had the opportunity for a bunch of plays and didn't make them. The same thing on Saturday. That would be the common theme. Opportunities. You have to take advantage of them in Big Ten games. You look at some of the scores from this past weekend, it's a fine line. The margin for error is very small in these games. That's what makes it so much fun to be part of and such a challenge to win."
Fitzgerald II: "I thought we had a great plan coming in. I thought the adjustments we talked about at halftime were on par with where we thought they were going to go and what they were going to do. We talked as a team today, 'What was different offensively, Coach (defensive coordinator Mike Hank(witz), that they did against us in the second half?' His response was, 'Nothing.' 'Coach (offensive coordinator Mick) McCall, what was different that they did against us defensively?' The answer was, 'Nothing.' I answered for the special teams along with the other coaches. 'What did they do differently in the kicking game?' 'Nothing.' So that's on us. We've got to play better. We've got to execute better. We've got to coach better. No disrespect to Penn State. They did a great job and made the plays we didn't make, and they executed better."
("Scheme wise, they didn't really change anything," the offensive lineman Keegan Grant would later echo. "But their players came out of the locker room with something to prove after the first half and the second half became an all out battle up front.")
Fitzgerald III: "It was a tale of two halves. It was as good as we've been and as bad as we've been. So, what team do we want to be? I think it's the first half team. We've had three bad quarters and it's cost us games. That's reality. You deal with it, you move on and you try to draw strength from the other three quarters in the game."
Does he remind his team of that?
"I don't know that I have to tell them that. I think they believe that and are confident that when they play the way they're capable of they can compete and play with anybody in the country. But it's one thing to say it and another thing to do it. I could care less about what I say. I care more about how we coach our guys and see the response. At this point of the year it's a lot less about what I say and a lot more about what we do."
Two-minute drill with defensive end Vince Browne, who earned his third Defensive Player-of-the-Week Award against the Nittany Lions:
"I just think it was a lack of focus. It's just one of those deals, at least as a defense, we came out to play. But it was one of those deals where one guy doesn't do his job here and it hurts us, and one guy doesn't do his job there, big gain. Little things like that. Give Penn State credit. They out-executed us in the second half.
Does that kind of play become contagious during a game?
"I guess it could. But I don't think, with the character of our team, I don't ever think it's been a problem of letting momentum take control of our attitudes. All right. It happened. We know it happened. Certainly there's a sense of urgency to get it fixed. People are kind of upset either with themselves or others. But you've got to focus on getting it fixed and doing it right the next series."
In tight games, a team's mentality can be how-are-we-going-to-win or how-are-we-going-to-mess-up. After blowing leads in three tough losses, any danger of the latter mentality taking over?
"I don't think anything like that's creeping in. And I don't think it's, 'Who's going to make a play?' On good teams individuals are thinking, 'I need to make a play now. Now's the time we need it. I've got to make a play.' I think we've got that, man. We've just got to go out, keep working. We're so close and we're a good football team. We've just got to go out, we can't lose confidence because we are a good football team. We've just got to keep trying to be good and keep improving."
Does he see any loss of confidence?
"I don't think so. Of course, after a game, it's not going to be sunshine and rainbows after you lose like that to Penn State. And it shouldn't be. But it's Monday, man. Time to move on."
Check out the full Skip Myslenski NUsports.com Archive!
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter, become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook! and subscribe to the NU Sports Express e-newsletter to receive the latest news, schedule updates and video and to interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!