Last season, Northwestern lost a critical game against Army on the road that was the beginning of a five game losing streak for the Wildcats.
After losing its first game of this season to Penn State last Saturday, the Wildcats will need to erase any memories of the game in order to prevent losing two in a row as they face Minnesota this Saturday in Minneapolis.
The Wildcats were outmatched in nearly every phase against Penn State and couldn’t prevent the Nittany Lions from converting third and fourth downs, especially after leading 28-17. Giving up 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter would damage the psyche of most teams, but it hasn’t deterred a Northwestern team on the verge of becoming bowl-eligible with a victory this Saturday.
“Our blueprint for success on defense is getting off the field on third down,” said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald on Monday. “Our defense gave us a chance to win the game, we were just on the field way too long.”
Against Penn State, the Wildcats had possession for just 20 minutes while the Nittany Lions were able to use nearly 40 minutes of possession time to attack Northwestern’s defense. With one of the better rushing defenses entering the game, the Wildcats could do little to stop Penn State’s rushing attack and the aerial assault from senior quarterback Matt McGloin whom Fitzgerald jokingly said he’s happy to see graduating soon.
Northwestern looked out of sync on Saturday on offense and defense, yet managed to take the lead before halftime 14-10. Although the Wildcats had multiple opportunities to stop the Nittany Lions, the team’s third down defense was atrocious in the second half.
Penn State converted 10 of its 22 third down opportunities and more importantly, the Nittany Lions went converted five of six fourth downs. Allowing an offense to remain on the field is recipe for disaster for any team at any level of football.
The loss to Penn State on Saturday could go one of two ways, either the Wildcats regroup this week and prepare for a Minnesota team that had a bye week or they allow this game to begin a downhill snowball effect of losing consecutive games.
“You’ve just got to get back to work,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got a 24 hour rule here whether we win or lose. I thought our preparation last week was great…I think we’re a different team and we’ve learned a lot from a year ago.”
It appears that Fitzgerald wasn’t only talking about reaching the conference championship game when he discussed his players embracing “The Journey” but dealing with tough losses as well. It would be easy for the players to hang their heads after losing its first game of the season but that wasn’t evident on Monday afternoon.
Instead, the players have put the onus on themselves to get better this week through practice and have a better understanding of limiting their opponents third down conversions. Yes, losses are tough but having the right attitude after being knocked down goes a long way, especially when a team is as close as Northwestern is this season.
“It’s all about refocusing,” said defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt on Monday. “I don’t think we [had] the right attitude last year, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue at all [this year]. We have a group of character guys who are willing to work during the week…that grind in order to get [better] results on Saturday.”
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