Friday, November 1, 2013
Wildcats aim for another Lincoln revival
By Adam Rittenberg
Nebraska's Memorial Stadium isn't an ideal place for a visiting team to revive its season.
The Cornhuskers are 396-117-13 all-time on their home field with 44 consecutive winning seasons there and a 34-7 mark under sixth-year coach Bo Pelini. Northwestern comes to Lincoln, Neb., on a four-game slide, winless in Big Ten play and simply trying to inch closer to bowl eligibility after a miserable month of October.
So why could Saturday's game be exactly what the Wildcats need? Because they've done it before.
Northwestern came to Lincoln at 3-5 in 2011, a season that also began with high hopes before veering off track. Like this year's team, the 2011 Wildcats dealt with key injuries on the offensive side, including a constant will-he-play-or-won't-he distraction involving quarterback Dan Persa, who had ruptured his Achilles' tendon the previous season.
Just when Northwestern's streak of bowl appearances seemed over, the team put it all together in Lincoln, as quarterback Kain Colter spurred Northwestern to a 28-25 win. The Wildcats ended up winning their next two games to become bowl eligible.
QB Kain Colter and the Northwestern Wildcats have to shake off the frustration of their four-game losing streak.
Northwestern hopes for a similar revival Saturday afternoon against a Nebraska team also reeling after a 33-24 loss at Minnesota. Senior linebacker Damien Proby said Monday that the 2011 win in Lincoln will be brought up before Saturday's game kicks off.
"We can't go back and fix our past mistakes," Proby said. "The end goal right now is to go 1-0."
To get back on track, Northwestern must get back to what it has done in the past: win the turnover battle, limit penalties and finish drives. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said the team has beaten itself in three of the four losses, especially on offense.
Northwestern has had eight turnovers in its four Big Ten losses, including two fumbles in Iowa territory that loomed large in last week's 17-10 overtime loss to the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats actually had been somewhat loose with the ball during nonconference play, committing six turnovers but surviving because the competition wasn't as strong.
Penalties also have been an issue, as the Wildcats have been flagged more than their opponent in three of their Big Ten losses. An illegal block penalty on superback Dan Vitale late in regulation at Iowa loomed large as Northwestern appeared to be going in for the game-winning score.
"You look at some of the penalties of aggression," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think there's a coach in the country that gets upset with guys trying to play hard and trying to play physical. But the other ones are unacceptable, and we've been pretty darn disciplined around here.
"It's unfortunate that a couple times, we haven't done that."
Northwestern also has struggled to finish drives. The Wildcats had nine possessions reach Ohio State territory in their Big Ten opener, but only three ended with touchdowns. They failed to score a touchdown against Wisconsin, had just two touchdowns against Minnesota and just one against Iowa. Although Northwestern leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally in red-zone scoring (30 scores in 31 possessions), its red-zone touchdown ratio isn't nearly as strong (18 of 31 possessions).
"Quite frankly, two-thirds of our football team is playing well enough for us to win," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to become more consistent offensively, and we've got to score more touchdowns. If we do that, we'll be fine. You’ve just got to keep grinding and doing what you do. The formula works.
"We're just on a journey with some bumps in the road right now."
Saturday, that journey reaches Lincoln, where Northwestern hopes to once again get back on course.