Coach Pat Fitzgerald blames himself for the Northwestern football team’s shocking loss to FCS opponent Illinois State in Week 2 of this season.
The Wildcats were coming off another upset loss at home to Western Michigan in which quarterback Clayton Thorson fumbled at the 1-yard line with less than 3 minutes remaining.
Fitzgerald, whose team won an impressive 10 games in 2015, wasn’t happy with the performance, and he let his team know about it on the practice field.
“I just shredded our coaches and I shredded our guys,” Fitzgerald said this week. “We weren’t playing the Wildcat way, and those next two practices getting ready for our second opponent were just brutal, and I probably took the legs out of our guys that week, and it’s my fault.”
Since that ghastly two-game losing streak, Western Michigan’s 8-0 start has vaulted the Mid-American Conference Broncos into The Associated Press Top 25, and the resurgent Wildcats have morphed into a dark-horse contender in the Big Ten Conference West Division.
Northwestern (4-4, 3-2) gave sixth-ranked Ohio State a scare in Columbus last week before losing by 4 points, and its only other loss during Big Ten play came against Nebraska, a team also currently ranked in the top 10. Sandwiched between was a three-game winning streak that included road games at Iowa and Michigan State.
If the Wildcats knock off the No. 8 University of Wisconsin for the third time in as many years Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois, they’ll give themselves an outside chance to sneak into the Big Ten Championship Game if the Cornhuskers falter down the stretch.
“From what I’ve seen, it’s a team that’s playing with a chip on their shoulder because I think everybody pushed them aside once they had that loss (to Illinois State),” UW outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “It’s kind of a me-against-the-world mentality that they’ve had. It’s a team that’s almost playing with nothing to lose.”
Northwestern’s defense has played particularly well against the run this season, and the Wildcats’ offense has found its groove thanks to running back Justin Jackson, wide receiver Austin Carr and the improvement of Thorson in his second year as a starter.
The connection between Thorson and Carr has proven to be particularly dangerous. Carr leads the Big Ten by a rather wide margin in receptions (58), receiving yards (878) and receiving touchdowns (9). He’s hit the 125-yard mark in each of his past three games, including a 158-yard performance at Ohio State last week.
Still, Fitzgerald feels his team isn’t where it should be. Northwestern’s turnaround after an 0-2 start was impressive, yes, but he doesn’t want the Wildcats to pat themselves on the back for close losses against the best the Big Ten has to offer.
“We just got back to being Wildcats and who we are, and the credit goes to the leadership on our squad,” Fitzgerald said. “Going through a bunch of adversity and a bunch of injuries, we’ve had to play a ton of young players, and we weren’t very good for a while, and I still don’t think we’re very good. I think we’re very average, but we’re grinding at it.
“I’m just going to have to try to squeeze everything I can out of this group. They’re coming along with us, so I’m proud of them for that. Just playing good or close isn’t good enough, and I’ve got to get these young guys to figure that out. We haven’t played great. We’ve just played OK and average. That’s not good enough.”
From the infirmary
UW outside linebacker T.J. Watt will play at Northwestern on Saturday after being listed as questionable with a left shoulder injury Monday.
Cornerback Natrell Jamerson (left leg), who has been out since Week 2, remains questionable, along with inside linebacker Griffin Grady (left shoulder).
Offensive lineman Jacob Maxwell (right shoulder), fullback Austin Ramesh (right shoulder) and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu (right arm) have been ruled out.