'Cats must buck up after loss to Buckeyes

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
11:00
AM CT
Pat Fitzgerald was rattling off some positives that he could take from Northwestern's 40-30 loss to Ohio State. He mentioned how the Wildcats showed off improved fundamentals after a bye week, how the offensive line turned in one of its best games of the season and how the players handled all the hype and excitement of the atmosphere as well as possible.

Still, Fitzgerald had a hard time summoning much enthusiasm.

"I'm bitterly disappointed," he said on Tuesday. "I'm not very pleased about it. We've got a bunch of not very happy people walking around here."

Northwestern acquitted itself very well against the No. 4 Buckeyes, even leading in the fourth quarter and nearly pulling off the upset. But this is a program that won 10 games last year and is ranked into the Top 20. It's not really into moral victories these days.

"We know Ohio State is going to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and we knew we could play with them," safety Ibraheim Campbell said. "And we did. We just didn't finish."

[+] EnlargeMeyers/Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, right, with Ohio State coach Urban Meyer after the Buckeyes' win.
Finishing games has been an issue of late for both Northwestern and its opponent this week, Wisconsin. It's appropriate, then, that both teams meet Saturday after coming up just short against Ohio State in their last outing. Both will look to flush that loss out of their system and take their next step toward their season goals.

In that regard, the Wildcats are in much better shape than the Badgers. They lost their Big Ten opener but did so in a cross-division game. Wisconsin will have a hard time catching Ohio State now in the Leaders Division race, Northwestern remains among the favorites to win the Legends -- and possibly force a rematch with those Buckeyes in Indianapolis.

"If we can go out and win the rest of our games, we can still get to where we want to go," center Brandon Vitabile said. "If you lose, you've got to learn. We're just hoping to learn something and move on."

One major lesson stemming from last week's defeat involves the run defense. Led by Carlos Hyde, Ohio State ran for 248 yards in Evanston and used its offensive line to control the second half. Wisconsin doesn't have backs as big as Hyde, but it has two star runners in James White and Melvin Gordon and its typical massive O-line. The Badgers are averaging over 300 yards per game on the ground.

"It was a deal where we didn't fit very well, we didn't get off blocks, we didn't tackle and we didn't get enough population to the ball," Fitzgerald said of the defensive effort last week. "If we do that again this week, we'll give up the same amount of yards. … We need to perform better if we want to beat a very physical and a very dominant, in my opinion, Wisconsin offense."

Northwestern knows it also can't leave points on the board. It settled for three short field goals last Saturday night to help keep Ohio State in the game.

"We've got to finish when we get down there," Vitabile said. "We moved the ball well, but we can't just stop at third-and-5 or third-and-6. We've got to convert those and get into the end zone."

Wisconsin knows all about not finishing, as the Badgers have lost 10 games by seven points or less since 2011. Similarly, Northwestern has held a fourth-quarter lead in its four losses dating back to last year.

One team will finish on top at Camp Randall Stadium. The other could wind up bitterly disappointed once again.

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