Big Ten

Fitzgerald's diagnosis for 1-3 Northwestern: 'Those are the things that losers do'

Fitzgerald's diagnosis for 1-3 Northwestern: 'Those are the things that losers do'

Four games. Three losses. And Pat Fitzgerald is not happy.

Nor should he be after the way his team played in a 24-13 loss to 20th-ranked Nebraska on Saturday night in Evanston. The Wildcats have issues that perhaps shouldn't be expected to be overcome against a team has loaded with offensive firepower as the Huskers, but when Nebraska gifted Northwestern a pair of goal-line fumbles, taking 14 points off the board, it seemed like a game the Cats could have — and maybe even should have — won. It's because the offense not doing anything with those fumbles wasn't the lone mistake in the game, not by a long shot. Fitzgerald laid them all out in succession, his team's Saturday-night screw-ups: holding penalties that negated key third-down conversions, a Clayton Thorson interception in the end zone that snuffed out momentum, a missed extra point and a missed field goal by increasingly inaccurate kicker Jack Mitchell and a defense that was shredded for 556 yards of Nebraska offense.

So yeah, Fitz was not happy.

"You cannot do that and expect to win. Those are the things that losers do," the head coach said after the defeat. "And when you’re 1-3, that’s why you’re at where you’re at. When you self-inflict, when you get penalties in crunch-time situations, you throw interceptions in the red zone, you miss extra points, you miss field goals — want me to keep going? You keep adding all those things up, it ends up equaling a loss. And we’ve had three of those games.

"The young men in that locker room have got to figure out the discipline that it takes to be a winner consistently. We’ve typically been that way during my time, and for whatever reason right now we are choosing not to do that. And I’ve got to get that fixed, that’s the bottom line. We know how to win, but we can’t do the things that losers do. That’s what we’re doing right now. You are what your record says it is, and it’s not very good. We’ve got to get it fixed, and we’ve got to get it fixed in a hurry."

Saturday, the list of mistakes was long, but this style of play hasn't been limited to one week or one night. Season-opening losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State came in gut-wrenching fashion, first thanks to a Thorson fumble at the goal line and second on a walk-off field goal to an FCS opponent. All three losses have come in the friendly confines of Ryan Field, but that home-field comfort hasn't prevented Thorson from turning the ball over, play from both the offensive and defensive lines that earned press-confrerence call-outs from Fitzgerald, a banged-up secondary getting a similar tongue-lashing Saturday and a defense as a whole not playing in a fashion that mirrors the at-times dominating performances that unit turned in a year ago.

So excuse Fitzgerald if he can't pinpoint one thing that's disappointed him the most.

"I think the biggest disappointment is three losses," Fitzgerald said. "Three games that if we play the way we’re capable of, we have an opportunity to win all three. That starts and ends with me. I’m going to look hard at why we’re not playing and executing consistently. Are we asking guys to do too much? Are we thinking out there? You can make an excuse for the young guys, but if you go out with the 1s, you’re expected to perform. And if you don’t perform, you don’t deserve the right to go back out there as the 1.

"We’re four games in. There’s enough evidence on tape of who we are, and now we’re a very inconsistent football team. And that fits squarely on my shoulders. I’m not going to pout, I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. The only way I know how to fix it is to go out and do it, go out and practice it, go out and fix it."

The head coach is putting the blame on himself, but the players aren't shrinking from their responsibilities, either.

On offense, in particular, things have not gone well. Finishing drives was a particular talking point Saturday after the Cats had seven drives end in Nebraska territory, with another stopping at midfield, but coming away with just scores on just two of those drives. Northwestern reached the red zone just once but had three other drives end inside the 30-yard line — with two interceptions and a turnover on downs.

Getting close to the end zone but coming away with nothing is a fine little microcosm for the season as a whole. The three losses have been by a combined 14 points. But you don't get a win for getting close.

"We’re close, and I think as a team, looking at our three losses, we’re tired of being close," wide receiver Austin Carr said. "Offensively, we need to finish. Defensively, we need to put a whole game together. I’m telling the guys that we have to come together stronger, we can’t let this break us, we can’t let these losses ruin our whole season, we can’t throw in the towel. We’re going to focus on going 1-0, we’re going to learn from our mistakes, we’re going to look forward, we have to keep pushing.

"It’s just mental toughness. Getting deep into a drive, we have to lock it in. ... I think we had a lot of great preparation this week. Winning a Big Ten game is hard. I think we can just get tougher in the head game."

Winning in the Big Ten is hard. Unfortunately, the Cats found winning outside the Big Ten to be hard, too. Things will get tougher before they get easier. Next up is a game at Iowa, and that's followed by Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in three of the four games after the visit to the Hawkeye State. Northwestern is still getting its feet under it, something that proved difficult against teams from the MAC and from the FCS. Doing it against Big Ten title contenders is a whole different challenge, as the Cats found out the hard way on Saturday night.

"We go out to Iowa City, we’ve got to perform. That’s going to be tough. That’s going to be an awesome environment, they’ve got unbelievable fans. It’s going to be an incredibly huge challenge for us, and if we don’t go out there with the right attitude and the right preparation, we’ll get our fannies whipped, we’ll get crushed," Fitzgerald said. "So these guys better figure it out pretty quick. They better walk out of the locker room, they better hug whoever they love, they better go to bed, then they better wake up and get ready to get their rear ends coached off this week. Because that’s what’s going to happen.

"I’m not going to sit here and I’m not going to take it and I’m not going to accept it. They better buckle it up. They better start hydrating right now. Because it’s not acceptable the way we’re playing right now. Starts and ends with me, so I’ll fix it."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?