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Handling the hype, but not Ohio State

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A Week With Northwestern (3:32)

Adam Rittenberg goes behind-the-scenes with Northwestern as head coach Pat Fitzgerald prepares the Wildcats for one of the biggest games in program history: a clash with Big Ten rival Ohio State. (3:32)

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald's inspirational thought for the week leading up to the biggest game of his Northwestern coaching tenure didn't come from a world leader, an ancient philosopher, a religious figure or even a fellow football coach.

It came from a poet, sort of. Not Wordsworth or Byron or Yeats, although William Jonathan Drayton Jr. sounds like the name of a man who could have rubbed elbows with them.

As the countdown began for 4-0 Northwestern's much-anticipated showdown against No. 4 Ohio State, Fitzgerald quoted the man with the giant clock around his neck, former Public Enemy hype man Flavor Flav.

"Don't believe the hype," Fitzgerald said at last Monday's team meeting. "Don't believe the hype."

Handling the hype would be chief among the challenges for a Northwestern program not accustomed to receiving so much attention.

Saturday night's showdown with Ohio State had been billed as Northwestern's biggest game since its magical 1995 season, when Fitzgerald, then an All-American linebacker, helped lead the purple to Pasadena. ESPN's "College GameDay" made its first trip to Northwestern since 1995, and the number of potential distractions, from media requests to ticket requests, swelled throughout the week.

The national spotlight Northwestern sought for years had finally arrived. How would the Wildcats perform, especially against an Ohio State team that had won 28 of the teams' past 29 meetings and owned the longest winning streak in FBS at 17 games?

They handled the hype, but they couldn't quite handle Ohio State, falling 40-30. Northwestern executed its game plan, collected takeaways and consistently moved the ball, but several mistakes cost the team in its upset bid. In the end, a botched exchange and a debated spot on a fourth-and-1 plunge in Buckeyes territory left the Wildcats inches short of a chance for a program-boosting win.

"We were a step away," Fitzgerald told his staff the day after the game. "We were a step away from a tackle, a step away from first down on fourth down. There's a lot of things we can correct, but if we bottle this effort up for seven more games, we're gonna be really hard to beat."

Northwestern opened its doors to ESPN.com last week, allowing complete access to meetings, practices and training sessions, as well as the locker room and the sideline on game day.

This is the inside story of Northwestern's path to the big stage.

Day 1: Sunday, Sept. 29

The first of many odd scenes in an atypical week takes place in the football office lobby, as three staffers worked the phones in an attempt to locate … a Colonial outfit. Halloween is a month away, but with "College GameDay" back for the first time in nearly two decades, the school needs to spread the word.

The idea is to have Doug Meffley, Northwestern's director of digital and social communications, dress up as Paul Revere and ride around campus on a Segway, yelling, "GameDay is coming!" Quentin Davie, a former Northwestern linebacker now working as a recruiting intern, tries Party City and several Halloween stores. No luck.

Northwestern had an open date Saturday and the players had the entire weekend off, but 43 of them came in the previous night to watch the Ohio State-Wisconsin game, leaving behind a tower of empty pizza boxes outside the team room. The coaches are all in the office, reviewing film and refining a game plan that began during the open week.

At a staff meeting that afternoon, Fitzgerald, his nine assistants and director of football operations Cody Cejda sit around a table, while the support staff occupies an outer ring. A board on one wall lists recruits for each Big Ten team, as well as Stanford and Notre Dame, two of Northwestern's top competitors on the trail. Another board shows Northwestern's depth chart.

"As the week goes along," Fitzgerald says, "there will be more and more distractions."

He wants players and staff to handle off-field business like ticket requests as soon as possible.

In the same breath, Fitzgerald acknowledges the exposure the week will bring. Northwestern doesn't schedule many official recruiting visits during the season, preferring to give coaches extra time to visit with prospects during or after bowl games, but one prospect will be on campus Saturday. Fitzgerald, scheduled to make a live appearance on "College GameDay," suggests the recruit travel with him to the set.

"That's pretty strong," recruiting coordinator Matt MacPherson says.

The staff reviews its recruiting trips from the previous week before discussing the Ohio State-Wisconsin game. They note the missed opportunities for the Badgers: a dropped interception before halftime, a phantom face mask penalty that nullified an Ohio State fumble, an illegal formation penalty wiping out a muffed punt by the Buckeyes.

Northwestern can relate after coming up just short in its three losses in 2012. Fitzgerald made 5:03 -- the time separating the Wildcats from an undefeated record -- his major offseason theme, printing T-shirts that players often wear around the complex.

Execution is one of Fitzgerald's focal points for the week, along with speed. He references a line from Rob Stella, a Navy SEALs chief who has put Wildcats players through rigorous preseason workouts the past two years: Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.

The belief: in a chaotic situation, slowing your mind rather than rushing allows you to perform smoother, faster and more effectively.

"They'll be shocked at how fast we play," Fitzgerald says.

Day 2: Monday, Sept. 30

Players file into the Nicolet Football Center before dawn. If you want to play for Northwestern, you had better be a morning person, as the team has conducted in-season practices in the morning since 2008. The training room opens at 5:45 a.m., and meetings typically begin around 7.

Before position meetings, the defense meets as a unit. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz asks the group, "When you look at Ohio State, what comes to mind?"

"Big plays," the players answer. Ohio State already has 28 plays of 20 yards or longer.

Hankwitz expects Ohio State to provide opportunities for takeaways, a strength of Northwestern's defense, which has 10 interceptions and a fumble recovery through the first four games. The Wildcats' defensive line is especially adept at tipping passes, which could come in handy against Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller, who has a tendency to throw sidearm.

Hankwitz mentions the dropped interception by Wisconsin near the end of the first half against Ohio State, and how the Buckeyes struck for a 40-yard touchdown on the next play.

"You've got to take advantage," he says. "Get yourself in position. Make 'em earn every f---ing thing they get. Yeah, they're Ohio State. I don't see a big red 'S' on their chest. Go be their f---ing Kryptonite."

The base game plan is in, and they'll work on zone pressures at the walk-through later in the morning.

"When I play the scarlet and gray, the adrenaline level goes up to there!" shouts Hankwitz, who played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. "Let's go!"

In the special teams meeting, wide receivers coach Dennis Springer reviews Ohio State's top punt coverage players and those who are shaky in protection. He shows a fake punt Ohio State ran against Nebraska and how the personal protector tips it off. Northwestern must be conscious of possible fakes.

At the team meeting, players shuffle seats -- seniors in front, then juniors and so on. They'll only meet once more as a group before game day.

Fitzgerald begins with a slide show, the first of which lists the keys to victory. First is execution. Fitzgerald asks who watched games the previous Saturday.

"How many guys watched teams beat themselves?" he says. "That was a recurring theme game after game after game. I didn't watch a lot of teams win, I watched a lot of teams lose. It comes down to executing in the moment."

He repeats the SEALs mantra. Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.

"Eleven heartbeats going 1-0 for 60 minutes," Fitzgerald says. "That's what it's going to take from now until we go to Pasadena."

The players migrate to the weight room for their major game-week lift, while Fitzgerald leaves to fulfill media obligations.

After his news conference, Fitzgerald meets with the leadership council, which features 14 players representing different classes on the team. Fitzgerald reiterates the need to finish ticket requests early in the week. Quarterback Kain Colter jokingly asks if he can sell his tickets.

"That would be V for [NCAA] violation," a smiling Fitzgerald replies.

Colter made national news two weeks earlier when he joined several other FBS players in a sign of protest as part of the All Players United campaign, a push to raise awareness for NCAA players' rights. He wrote "APU" on his wristband and towel for the Wildcats' Sept. 21 game against Maine. But he didn't tell Fitzgerald before doing so. Fitzgerald, while supportive of Colter's rights to express himself, was disappointed that the quarterback didn't first mention the campaign to the leadership council.

The council has agreed not to write "APU" on their gear for Ohio State, but Colter asks if players can wear rubber APU wristbands instead. The group agrees. Fitzgerald jokes that he and Colter should don a Jim McMahon-style headbands at practice -- Fitzgerald would put "EMMERT" on his, for NCAA president Mark Emmert, while Colter would wear "NCPA," for National College Players Association.

The group decides on its uniform combination for the game -- black jerseys, black helmets, purple pants.

Fitzgerald asks if there's anything he needs to know that he doesn't, and gets no replies.

"Let's do what we do," he says. "Don't believe the hype. That's for our fans, for our students, for your families. I fully expect to win this game for a number of reasons. Number one is the way you started preparing a week ago."

The players head out, but the coaches' day is far from over. They'll be at the complex well into the night.

Day 3: Tuesday, Oct. 1

Just before 7 a.m., Fitzgerald and lead strength coach Jay Hooten greet players at the entrance to Nicolet.

"Wake your ass up!" Hooten yells. "Get a set!"

Each player does a set of curls before heading to meetings. Running back Venric Mark lifts with a bagel in his mouth.

The quarterbacks meet in the offensive staff room, with Colter joining offensive coordinator Mick McCall and Trevor Siemian, the team's 1A signal-caller. Most two-quarterback systems implode, but Northwestern continues to win by rotating Colter and Sieman, who have different strengths.

"Unless we say it, whoever goes in to start a series is going in for the series," McCall tells the two.

The lights go off and McCall reviews clips of Ohio State's defense, firing questions to his quarterbacks.

"Did you get a feel of where they're buzzing? Where are you checking that?" They spend much of the meeting on third-down plays, breaking them into distances (1-2 yards, 3-5 yards, 6-7 yards and eight or more yards). Ohio State enters the game ranked fourth nationally in third-down defense at just 23.2 percent conversions.

"Any questions?" McCall asks. "All right. Let's go have a day."

The players are on the practice field by 8:30 a.m., and the "College GameDay" theme song plays during stretching.

Mark, knowing his return to game action is days away after missing the Wildcats' previous three games because of injury, unleashes several primal screams while fielding punts. He wrong-foots a defender on the first play of team drills, eliciting cheers.

There's another No. 5 on the field, belonging to Miles Shuler, a recent transfer from Rutgers who played quarterback in high school and boasts tremendous speed. On the scout team, Shuler will play the role of Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, who wears No. 5.

The staff meets at 1 p.m., and team trainer Tory Lindley begins with the injury report, which is brief and includes a "double thumbs-up" on Mark.

"I love you, Tory," Fitzgerald says.

"I love you, too, coach," Lindley replies.

Fitzgerald hasn't seen the team this focused before. He doesn't want players tight for the game, but he's optimistic they won't be.

"Alright," Fitzgerald says. "Let's put two in a row together. Ready? Break."

The offensive coaches retreat to their room to review the final few plays from that morning's practice, as well as more Ohio State tape.

McCall goes around the table, asking each assistant which plays they want to see in the game plan. He'll make the final decisions on which plays make it and which don't. But he's not saying no to much.

"You've got a lot of plays, Mick," offensive line coach Adam Cushing says.

"Yeah," adds Fitzgerald, who has dropped by. "What don't you like?"

After two games of mostly vanilla offense against inferior competition, Northwestern is ready to open up its playbook.

Day 4: Wednesday, Oct. 2

It's 5:43 a.m., and the athletic training room is starting to buzz. Players such as center Brandon Vitabile and wide receiver Kyle Prater are already in for treatment, and 80 percent of the roster will stop by before practice. Some, like Mark, will return in the afternoon.

"This needs to be a place, not where they want to come, but where they're OK to come," says Lindley, the team's head athletic trainer since 2002. "We want to make this a welcoming place."

Lindley keeps the mood light with music and casual conversation while he and his staff try to tape as many players as they can before meetings at 6:50. He even gets the players involved, as wide receiver Christian Jones carefully cuts the tape Lindley applies to Vitabile's ankles.

"Steady hands," Vitable says.

After each job is finished, Lindley records it and calls out the next player's number: 40, 80, 50, 17. At 6 a.m., the plan for the day's practice is passed out.

"It's very barbershop-esque," Lindley says. "We all have our clients. Some tip better than others."

Meetings begin at 6:50, and Northwestern's special teamers enter the team room to The Gap Band's "You Dropped A Bomb On Me," an homage to the kickoff coverage unit, called the bomb squad. It's "Way-Back Wednesday," and the group stands and claps along to the 1982 hit.

Linebackers coach Randy Bates then appears on stage in a purple fedora, a purple scarf and sunglasses, asking the group who he is.

"Elton John?" one player incorrectly guesses.

Bates later laments that a graduate assistant didn't play Prince's "Purple Rain" for his appearance. But he achieves his main objective: to keep the players loose in a week where it's very easy to tighten up.

They soon get down to business. Bates notes that Buckeyes tight end Jeff Heuerman often indicates where the returns are headed. MacPherson is up next with the kickoff return team and shows players statistics about Ohio State's coverage team and kicker Drew Basil, as well as where Basil likes to direct his kicks.

At the offensive line meeting, Cushing breaks the news that they'll practice the silent snap count later that morning. Boos fill the room.

"It's a home game!" tackle Jack Konopka says.

Northwestern is indeed playing at home, but the number of visiting fans who pack Ryan Field can't be overlooked in game prep. Last year against Nebraska, Northwestern had to use a silent count in the second half because the Husker faithful made so much noise.

Vitabile points out that Northwestern has taken extra measures to ensure its fans don't sell their tickets. Cushing provides a silver lining: At the very least, the practice will help for next week's trip to Wisconsin.

"Deal with it, move on," he says. "Fair enough?"

When practice finishes, players rush to the weight room, many with their pads still on, for a mandatory 10-minute lift. Northwestern used to lift just once during game weeks, but Hooten lobbied Fitzgerald for a short second session.

At the staff meeting, Fitzgerald cracks open a Sprite Zero and a bag of Skinny Pop popcorn (his wife's orders).

"Can this week just get done?" he says, smiling.

Fitzgerald reiterates the team is focused -- perhaps too much so -- but capable of loosening up enough before kickoff. He checks the game plan with the coordinators and receives green lights.

"Let's finish the week," he says. "The kids are in a good place."

Day 5: Thursday, Oct. 3

Fitzgerald might be the face of Northwestern's program, but he's not the only former defensive star among the group. Jerry Brown, the team's assistant head coach/defensive backs coach, was an All-Big Ten defensive back for the Wildcats in 1971, the program's last good season (7-4, second in the Big Ten) before the dark ages.

A large print of Brown in his No. 42 jersey fills the door of the defensive backs' meeting room.

Brown begins with some reminders about the keys to victory: execution, capitalizing on takeaway chances and playmaking.

Defensive line coach Marty Long enters the room with a box of Dunkin Donuts, which his defensive linemen clearly didn't need.

"Why did you bring those fat pills in here?" Brown jokes.

"I know these safeties and these corners need it," says Long, letting his South Carolina accent slip (cor-nuhs).

Brown reviews the game itinerary and tells players he'll test them on the plays Friday afternoon. They go over their play checks and Ohio State's 2-minute offense.

"The rule of thumb is to make these dudes work to get what they get," he says. "Don't give 'em stuff."

Brown concludes by showing the end of the first half of the Wisconsin-Ohio State game and the Badgers' dropped interception.

"Five-oh-three right here, boys, five-oh-three," Brown says, referring to the team's season mantra. "Big-ass plays. You've gotta make 'em."

Brown again brings up the "5:03 plays" when he addresses the entire team before practice. He then raises a brown paper bag with something inside.

Inside is a large can with "Wildcat Whoopass" on the label, next to Brutus Buckeye's face. The players erupt.

Practice is short and uneventful, as players aren't in pads and simply review the plays they'll run in the game. Rain begins to fall, and the team heads inside for Fitzgerald's final practice speech.

"Set a simple goal," he says to the players. "Be the best I can be, every rep, regardless of my role. When we're done, everybody in the country will know what it means to play Wildcat football. And we'll act like we've been there before. Let's have the most fun we've ever had doing it."

Practice week is over, and as players leave the field, they each touch the "Trust Yourself" two-by-four board, a tradition implemented by Fitzgerald's predecessor, Randy Walker, who died suddenly of a heart attack in June 2006. Walker often said, "It's easy to walk across the board when it's lying on the ground, but if you suspend it 200 feet in the air, it becomes more difficult because of your fear of what will happen if you make a misstep. But it's the same thing lying on the ground as it is suspended in the air. You have to trust yourself."

Much of the staff meeting after practice is spent on recruiting, as coaches will reach out to prospects later in the day. Fitzgerald tells the assistants that he wants all players verbally committed to Northwestern to apply early decision. The deadline is Nov. 1.

They go through a list of recruits, as Fitzgerald asks rapid-fire questions about grades, ability and what other Big Ten schools are offering. They debate whether to seek an academic exception for a local prospect, whose grades and ACT score fall below Northwestern's range. They also list which local high school coaches will attend the game, mentioning them simply by first name: Mark, John, David, Frank.

Fitzgerald tells the staff to enjoy "date night." Most nights, the coaches are in until 9 or 10 p.m., but Fitzgerald reserves Thursdays so they can be with their wives and families.

"We had a good week," Fitzgerald says. "Let's rock 'n' roll."

Day 6: Friday, Oct. 4

At a booster club luncheon in downtown Evanston, Fitzgerald receives a standing ovation from the crowd. He speaks about how the buildup to the game differs from when he played in 1995, when Northwestern was a Cinderella -- "a cute little story" -- and how things since have evolved.

The staff meets at 3 p.m., and Fitzgerald goes around the room, asking each assistant about personnel.

There's one final special-teams review. Fitzgerald mentions that Buckeyes backup quarterback Kenny Guiton is the holder on field goals, so Northwestern must be cognizant of fakes.

McCall gathers the offense and reviews major emphasis points: ball security and getting into manageable third downs. Northwestern has finished in the top 30 nationally in third-down conversions in each of McCall's five seasons as coordinator. The Wildcats enter Saturday's game ranked 16th (51.7 percent).

"When we get down in third-and-6 or less, we're money," McCall tells the group.

Position meetings begin, and Springer reminds the wide receivers to hydrate, focus on themselves and remain poised. He has looked up the verbs to attack and to create, and reads the definitions.

"Embrace this moment," Springer says. "This is why you came to Northwestern. You've earned the right to play in a game like this. If we do what we do, we'll earn the right to play where we need to play in December."

Sweat builds on Springer's shaved head as he reviews Ohio State's base defense, a Cover 1/man free look that will force receivers to win in space. He expects some corner crash and pressure in the red zone, when Ohio State uses a quarters, or Cover 4, look.

"Our job tomorrow," Springer says, "is to take this group to a place they don't want to go."

Standing on the sideline during the team's walk-through, Fitzgerald says he's no longer concerned about the team being too tight for a big game. It's why he tries to back off and let his assistants coach as the week goes along.

The rain has held off and players enter Ryan Field. They walk through substitutions and every situation that could occur in the game, from kickoffs to field goals to spiking the ball late in a half. They end with victory formation and then gather at midfield.

Honorary captain Pat Ryan, founder of Aon Corporation and for whom the Wildcats' stadium is named, says he often addresses crowds numbering in the thousands but is especially nervous for this speech. "We're just so proud of you," he tells the players, "what this team is all about, what you're all about."

Day 7: Saturday, Oct. 5

After a weekend of early rising, players sleep in until 9:30 a.m. before heading to breakfast and position meetings.

Long meets with the defensive linemen. Each player has taken a test on the game plan, graded by a teammate. Veterans like end Tyler Scott and injured tackle Sean McEvilly receive near-perfect scores, while younger players have more points deducted.

Long knows Ohio State will mimic plays that have hurt Northwestern in earlier games and asks players what they expect to see.

Will Hampton: Outside zone.

Scott: Split zone.

Dean Lowry: Sprint draw.

The players shout out calls like they're in the game: "Surge! Surge! Solo! Solo! Buzzard! Omaha! Buzz! Buzz!"

When finished, they gather in the middle of the room and chant, "1-2-3, nap!"

After a sluggish performance in a mid-afternoon game against Boston College last season, Northwestern's leadership council lobbied Fitzgerald to schedule a mandatory nap on Saturdays with mid-afternoon or nighttime kickoffs. Fitzgerald has mocked the concept but nonetheless honors the players' wishes.

"Don't over-exert yourself in the nap," Bates jokes as the linebackers and defensive linemen retreat to their rooms.

After the pregame meal -- grilled chicken, pork tenderloin, spaghetti and salad -- and a final walk-through, the team gathers in a small auditorium to hear from Stella, the Navy SEALs chief who travels from San Diego for several of their games each season. Stella tells the players to raise their arms, and then to reach a little higher. They'll need that extra lift later that night against Ohio State.

A storm has hit as the team boards buses, and it's a slow ride through the deluge to Ryan Field, despite a police escort. Players rush to the locker room, where the rest of their teammates and the strength staff fervently welcome them.

AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" plays as the Wildcats take the field for warmups, but the rain has let up and won't be a factor during the game.

Quick meetings fill the pregame locker room. In one corner, Fitzgerald tells the captains that they're there to win. In another, McEvilly, on crutches, tells his fellow defensive linemen, "I'd die to be in your position." Safety Traveon Henry, addressing the entire defense, mentions that some of them might have wanted to play for Ohio State and never got the chance. "Let's make a memory tonight," he says.

In a brief speech, Fitzgerald reminds players of the emphasis points from Monday: executing, winning the turnover battle and slowing down to speed up.

"Slow is smooth; smooth is fast," the team chants before taking the field. "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast."

Ohio State records two big plays on its opening possession -- passes of 20 and 29 yards -- but has no gain longer than 38 yards in the game, as Northwestern defenders keep ball carriers in front of them. The Buckeyes move the ball but can't get in the end zone, and Northwestern's focus on takeaways pays off as Scott forces a Braxton Miller fumble and Ifeadi Odenigbo tips a Miller pass, which linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo intercepts late in the first half.

Mark shows no signs of rust, trucking Ohio State safety Corey Brown on a tone-setting run to set up Northwestern's second touchdown. Colter's double duty at receiver pays off, as he hauls in a 9-yard scoring pass from Trevor Siemian.

Northwestern endures a special-teams breakdown, as Ohio State swallows up punter Brandon Williams on a block and recovers for a touchdown. But the Wildcats respond later with their own special-teams bonanza as Mike Jensen, who had watched Ohio State's fake punt against Nebraska on film that week, snuffs out a fake and drops Cameron Johnston.

Northwestern leads 20-13 after a penalty-free first half and could be up more, as it twice settled for field goals after reaching Ohio State's red zone. That inability to finish drives will end up costing the Wildcats.

As players drink Gatorade and much on energy chews, Hankwitz reminds the defense of Stella's message: Reach a little higher.

"Make 'em earn every yard," he tells the group. "We will get another takeaway or two if we keep it up."

The defense comes through in the third quarter, forcing another Miller fumble, which nearly results in Miller's benching. Three takeaways typically equals victory, but not for Northwestern on this night. The Wildcats' normal third-down efficiency isn't there, despite McCall's confidence entering the game. Leading 23-13 midway through the third quarter, Northwestern can't move the chains on third-and-1 as the coaches opt for Mike Trumpy at running back rather than Mark. Down 34-30 in the fourth, Mark comes up a yard shy on third-and-4 in Buckeyes territory.

Northwestern converts only 5 of 14 third downs in the game, as nine drives reach Buckeye territory, but only three culminate in the end zone. Protection becomes an issue as Ohio State sacks Siemian four times after halftime.

The Wildcats are flagged four times in the second half, including a kick-catch interference penalty that enrages Fitzgerald, who thought C.J. Bryant was held. Early in the fourth quarter, Fitzgerald barks at an official, "Great time for one of those holding calls." Ohio State is penalized just once in the game.

Northwestern's potential game-tying drive ends as officials rule Colter down short of the marker on fourth-and-1 with 2:43 left. Fitzgerald challenges the spot but the call stands, costing Northwestern a valuable timeout. Although the Wildcats limit Miller and the big play, they can't contain bruising Buckeyes ball carrier Carlos Hyde, who rushes for three second-half touchdowns.

Northwestern players quietly enter the locker room, as the loss begins to sink in.

"All our goals are still ahead of us," Scott says.

"They made one more play," MacPherson tells a recruit.

McCall, having made his way down from the coaches' booth, embraces a downcast Colter.

"We had opportunities to win that football game against a damn good football team," Fitzgerald tells the players. "And that's what we are: We're a darn good football team. But every play in these heavyweight fights matters. Every single play."

Fitzgerald goes on to say he can't make players feel better about the loss, but it can be fuel going forward. A Big Ten championship isn't off the table.

"I know it hurts right now," he says, "but you've got to walk out of here more determined than ever."

Day 8: Sunday, Oct. 6

After players go through their postgame injury check, the staff gathers at 2 p.m. to wrap up Ohio State and look ahead to their next opponent, Wisconsin. Despite a physical game, Northwestern emerges relatively healthy. All players who played against Ohio State should be ready for the Badgers.

Fitzgerald is pleased with how players handled the week and blocked out distractions. He's also pleased with the staff's game preparation and in-game communication. There were mistakes, but he feels Northwestern had the edge for most of the game.

"We can out-effort people," he says. "They'll empty the tank, man. We want it bad enough."

This is when they need you. Give them the tools to get better. The biggest one is a smile on your face. One hallmark of who we are is our resiliency.

--Pat Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald takes the blame for the punt block, as he "saw it was wrong" but didn't call a timeout fast enough.

Fitzgerald challenges the staff to help players recharge for Wisconsin, a team with "great football awareness" that almost never loses at home.

"This is when they need you," he says. "Give them the tools to get better. The biggest one is a smile on your face. One hallmark of who we are is our resiliency."

The Wildcats responded from each loss in 2012 with a win the next week. They'll need to do the same to remain in the hunt for a league title.

"Just one more step, one more," Fitzgerald says. "Our guys know that."