When the media arrived in the Nicolet Football Center Monday at 10:30 a.m. for Northwestern’s weekly press conference, the mood was damp, but not for football-related reasons.
Many of the seats near the front of the podium were wet. Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune got up from his seat in the middle of the second row and moved to the far right side of the first row. Reporters started mumbling about a leak.
When Greenstein asked Coach Pat Fitzgerald about the moisture, he cleared up the rumors.
“Oh, you noticed that?” Fitzgerald chuckled.
“Every once in awhile, you’ve got to wake the guys up, so we attacked them with about 300 water balloons at the end of the team meeting and doused them.”
Could there be a more defining moment to describe what has become known as “The Northwestern Way?”
NU (then No. 18/19) got shellacked in Madison by unranked Wisconsin, 35-6. The loss dropped Northwestern to 0-2 in Big Ten play and pulled it out of all top 25 polls. It was the first time the ‘Cats lost by 29 or more points since November 27, 2010 (also at Wisconsin).
Yet, there was the Northwestern coaching staff on Monday, throwing two coolers of water balloons at their players.
“You got to have fun when you’re doing this and obviously no one enjoys not being successful, but I think the hallmark of this squad has been our character and the way that we’ve responded,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve talked about the glue that keeps everything together is having fun and enjoying the moment, the opportunities. We’ve got half our season left. We’ve put ourselves in position to achieve our goals. We’ve got to execute better.”
On the players’ end, they came into the Monday morning team meeting with one mindset and came out with another.
“I saw the camera up there and didn’t really know what to think about it,” said sophomore superback Dan Vitale.
Junior defensive lineman Chance Carter was half-expecting a water balloon fight to develop sooner or later.
“Usually when we have a water balloon fight, it’s during Kenosha. We were waiting for it in Kenosha. It never came, so we were waiting for it,” Carter said.
According to Carter’s account of the attack, he tried to react in the most unselfish way possible. He immediately began searching for ammunition to supply his teammates.
“What I was trying to do was find where they were getting the water balloons from, try to take it from them and get them out to my teammates to get the coaches back,” he said.
Junior offensive lineman Brandon Vitabile was sitting on the left side of the front row when the first shots were fired. A staffer flanked on the sidewall left him surrounded. Under fire, Vitabile found the value of the moment.
“We’re still upset about the game, we’re still on the 24-hour rule, but people are still getting over it,” Vitabile said. “This is just to get us past, get a smile on our faces, get a little pep in our step.”
For Fitzgerald, his players’ post-water balloon fight emotions are satisfying. It means they have surpassed the funk they endured in Madison.
“I didn’t like our attitude at times on Saturday,” he said. “I think that we let one bad play kind of be a roller coaster ride or a drop or whatever it might be. That’s typically not who we’ve been. Every once in a while, you’ve got to shake them up a bit.”
Something clearly has to be shaken up. Two weeks ago, Northwestern was a top-15 team and an early favorite to win the Legends Division. On Saturday, the ‘Cats had 241 total yards and gave up 527 total yards. NU was 2-17 on third downs and rushed for just 44 yards. Wisconsin out-possessed the Wildcats 38:15-21:45.
In the first half, the defense forced three takeaways, but Wisconsin went into the locker room with a 21-6 advantage. Fitzgerald points to the second quarter as a critical period of the game. A 71-yard run by Melvin Gordon for the Badger’s third score opened the floodgates.
“It really swung at the end of the second quarter. A 14-3 game, we’re moving the ball and we got a second down play, we don’t execute. Third down play, we don’t execute. Two plays later, we get the explosion play.”
Fitzgerald is not over-critical of his defense for their performance, as he expressed more concern on the offensive side of the ball. Despite the three takeaways, the offensive could not find the end zone and only managed 10 first downs (Wisconsin had 24).
“We’d have good protection, we’d have a good throw, we’d drop the ball,” Fitzgerald said. “We’d have a lapse in protection, the route would be open and we couldn’t make the throw.
Fitzgerald went as far as to compare the loss to a disappointing affair on the Hudson River two years ago. Although that the numerical score of that game was much closer the lack of execution is reminiscent.
“I thought our defense, for the most part, especially if the first 35-40 minutes of the game, gave us a chance to win the game and we just didn’t execute cleanly on offense,” he said. “Kind of eerily similar to the way I felt coming out of the Army game a couple years ago. I felt like it was an anomaly, felt like we didn’t execute cleanly.”
On the field, Vitale had three catches for 21 yards, making him NU’s third-leading receiver in both categories Saturday. He does not make excuses for his unit’s performance, but is confident in progression as the second half of the season begins.
“Little things here and there, people just not doing their job, myself included, on certain plays — that kind of messed us up a little bit,” he said. “If we can put together some better drives and score touchdowns, not field goals, I think we can do some big things and win some big games.”
With senior quarterback Kain Colter injured most of the game, junior Trevor Siemian took the vast majority of snaps. Siemian was just 13 of 34 passing. NU’s 44 rushing yards were well below the current team average of 189.3 yards per game. NU quarterbacks were also sacked a combined seven times.
Vitabile takes a look at the porous numbers and throws out the analytics. It was the physical mistakes that caused the holes.
“It’s fundamentals. Small details is what it was. Eyes here, hands here. Our plan was good, our scheme was good. We just didn’t execute as well as we could have and know we can,” Vitabile said.
Although Fitzgerald and his team do not like to make excuses or whine over losses, there is no denying the team suffered a high number of dropped passes on Saturday. On a few plays that many have changed the course of the game, NU receivers dropped potential first down receptions.
“I stopped counting,” Fitzgerald said of the number of drops.
He was asked what number he stopped counting.
“One,” he said.
The disappointing offensive effort brought senior punter Brandon Williams onto field for nearly a dozen cameos. Williams punted 11 times.
“I think he lettered in one game, which stinks,” Fitzgerald said.
For the ‘Cats, all hope is not lost, as the team meets its first Legends Division opponent Saturday when Minnesota (4-2, 0-2) comes to Evanston. The Gophers are also coming off two losses to open up Big Ten play, as they fell at home against Iowa and in Ann Arbor against Michigan. Minnesota had a bye this past Saturday.
Although the Wildcats have won three straight against Minnesota and five of the last six meetings between the two opponents, no one in purple is sleeping on the Gophers this week.
“We’ve both set ourselves behind schedule with the way we’ve performed in our first two Big Ten games,” Fitzgerald said. “It should be a great football game, a very physical game. These games against the Gophers have been close in my tenure here either way, so it should be great football game and a great atmosphere.”
Minnesota will be without head coach Jerry Kill, who is taking a leave of absence to focus on treating and managing his epilepsy. Kill did not travel with the team to Michigan two weeks ago, and Saturday’s game will be the first since he temporarily stepped away from the team.
Fitzgerald had the following to say about Kill:
“I’m very fortunate to have a great relationship with Coach Kill. Our relationship started when he was here at Northern. We got to know each other very well then. I’ve expressed my thoughts and prayers from our staff to him as he’s going through a very difficult time health-wise, but he’s tough. He’s overcome cancer. He’s overcome epilepsy and the challenges that have come with it. From the coaching fraternity, I hope he feels all of our support, especially in our league. There’s no one more respected and more loved in our coaching fraternity than Jerry. His staff has been with him for a number of years and you see the way they’ve stepped up through this tough time. I’ve gotten to know his wonderful wife and we feel for him. He’ll be back. He’s proven that.”
As for the wider picture of the Big Ten, the title race is still open, especially on the Legends Division side. Michigan’s 43-40 loss to Penn State in 4OT proves Fitzgerald’s case that every game in the Big Ten is tough.
Vitabile and his teammates were on the bus coming from Madison during the drama in State College. He said he followed the game on Twitter.
“It just shows how close the conference is in general,” Vitabile said. “Everyone’s had some rough games, but everyone’s playing really hard now. We just know we have [Michigan] a couple weeks away. Fitz says every week is a street fight.”
With Michigan’s loss, NU controls its own Legends Division destiny over the Wolverines. Even if Northwestern wins out, it will need some help to get over the Nebraska and Michigan State hump after opening conference play with two losses.
“We’ve got take care of our business. We can’t control the outcome of those other games, but we’ve got to win ours no matter what. Yeah, it gave us a bit of a sigh of relief, but we’ve got to take care of our stuff first,” Vitale said.
Fitzgerald mentioned a point that was later echoed by Vitale. Northwestern cannot look at the “macro” picture. It has to take the season one week at a time.
“We’ve been focused on going 1-0,” Fitzgerald said about each week.
Coming from a guy who once led a team to an undefeated record in conference play, he knows the deal. And he knows it will not be easy.
“Fight and scratch and claw and find a way to win,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s conference plays. We’ve been unsuccessful, but you just put your shoes on, put your eye black on, tape your ankles, let’s go practice and get better.”
Northwestern is 4-2, but the season is far from gone. It is still only hallway through, and there is a lot of football remaining. NU still has all five Legends Division opponents on their schedule.
Northwestern will attempt to put two consecutive Big Ten failures behind the team. How does one get over 100 college students to put two consecutive losses behind them.
Fitzgerald has the easy answer.
“You pelt them with water balloons, man.”
A traditional college powerhouse may react to that statement with horror. In Evanston, it is not surprising.
As for the on-field outcome of “The Northwestern Way,” those details are still to come.
Fitzgerald said Colter and Mark are day-to-day and added that he had been given “pretty positive news” from the training staff. He said the two seniors will be limited in the beginning of the week, but he hopes they will be able to take more reps closer to Saturday.