By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
QUICK HITTERS. . . .
CHIN UP, OLD CHAP: They opened 1-3 in 2016. Northwestern then ripped off three straight victories, fell to No. 6 Ohio State (by four) and No. 8 Wisconsin (by 14), and finally closed out their year by winning three of their final four. They opened 2-3 last fall and then the ‘Cats did not lose again, finishing off that season with eight-straight wins. Now they are 1-3 as they prepare for Saturday’s date at Michigan State.
“The season’s not over,” the superback Cam Green will say when asked what lessons learned in the past can be applied in this present. “We have a long way to finish it out. We’re 1-1 in the Big Ten and we have more to come, especially since we want to win the West. So a lot of games to come.”
“We can’t hang our heads,” the wideout Flynn Nagel said to the same question. “I think we have a really good football team and we’ve shown that at times. It’s time to bring it all together and that’s not going to happen if everyone’s handing their heads and feeling sorry about the losses we’ve had. We’ve just got to keep moving forward and bring it all together as a unit.”
THE JOB AT HAND: The defensive tackle Jordan Thompson is both one of the leaders and one of most-considered analysts.
“Just finding more ways to put us in positions to win,” he said Monday when asked what his role entails now that his team is on a three-game losing streak. “Whether that’s playing harder. Whether that’s getting on a guy if they miss a call or something. Or whether it’s just listening. Just turning over stones until, at the end of the game, we’re one point more than the other team. Just finding that extra oomph.”
And what lessons did he learn over the earlier slow starts?
“It takes everything. Everything you have every play. It’s that one play when you exhale, that one play where you relax, that’s the play that hits. Thinking back to last year, after the Penn State game (which dropped them to 2-3), guys really looked at themselves and looked to the people next to them and said, ‘Hey. If we’re going to do something, we as a team need to step up. If we’re going to get ourselves out of this hole, it’s what we need to do right now.'”
Is it wearing, starting so slowly?
“Most definitely. Just having that repeated start and knowing you have a good football team is kind of frustrating. You just have to fall on that trust you have in the guy on your right and the guy on your left that you’re going to get it fixed. What’s done is done. We’ve just got to get ready for these games up ahead.
What prompted the break outs the last two seasons?
“Just a feeling of coming together, just really deciding what’s important. A living-in-the-moment type of deal. Everyone in the locker room wants to win. That’s something I don’t doubt. It’s just a matter of picking what’s important and bearing down and doing what must be done to get that win.”
BUT IT AIN’T EASY: Two days earlier, in the immediate wake of the ‘Cats loss to Michigan, Pat Fitzgerald was talking of the challenge ahead, and here he foreshadowed Thompson’s observations.
“Number one,” he said, “I’ve got to make sure they (the players) understand we have great confidence in them. Then you have to understand how you get better as a player. You keep the pedal down, man. You just grind. You just grind. You just keep working at it and working at it and working at it and eventually the game starts to slow down a little bit. Sometimes it takes years for some guys. Sometimes it takes days
“The challenging part when you’re a younger player, or you’re an older player and like in baseball you get in a slump, you start overthinking things. Is it my batting gloves? Is it my shoes? Did I wear the right shirt to Tuesday’s practice? You start worrying about the uncontrollables. So we’ve got to do a great job on honing those guys in on what they can control. One is the mental approach. It’s the way they study tape and prepare for their opponents. It’s the way they get ready from a nutrition and strength and weight room standpoint. And then its the way we practice and rest. So a lot goes into it. A lot goes into it.”
AND THE WINNER ISN’T: The ‘Cats went scoreless over the final 42:56 on Saturday and so it was hardly a surprise that the coaches didn’t hand out an offensive-player-of-the-game award.
“Fine,” Nagel said when asked how that snub left his unit feeling. “I don’t think it was a very good offensive performance. First half, we came out and we executed. Then the second half we failed to execute and didn’t perform and left our defense hanging. That’s multiple games now where that’s happened. So we need to get it fixed.”
Any explanation for that?
“I don’t really have an explanation for it. I think we take our foot off the pedal a little bit. We need to emphasize in practice, those last two or three periods, we need to really emphasize finishing. Then we need to have it translate from practice into the game.”
Also on Saturday the ‘Cats failed to create a turnover and so, again, it was hardly a surprise there was no one named as that game’s defensive big playmaker.
“Every day, every practice, coaches emphasize takeaways,” safety JR Pace said when asked about the team’s drought in both fumbles (only one recovered on the season) and interceptions (three in the opener, none since). “We’ve been trying to do that, but we can definitely improve on that. They put us in position. We’ve got to go out there and make the plays. I don’t think we’ve made the plays we should have and could have. So we’re going to keep harping on that.”
QUICK HITTERS: Saturday’s game was the ‘Cats first without the running back Jeremy Larkin, who retired from football after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis. “I think they adjusted fine,” Fitzgerald said of the trio that took his place against the Wolverines. But since they netted just 56 yards on 21 carries, he was right on when he added, “We’ve got to get more production. It’s a production business and we didn’t produce enough and now we’re playing (in Michigan State) the number one rush defense in the country. So buckle it up, put some more air in your helmet. We’re going to have our hands full again.”. . . . The Spartans, for the record, have given up just 161 rushing yards on 108 carries. That works out to 1.49 yards per carry and 40.3 yard per game. . . . And finally: Among the trio to step in for Larkin was Solomon Vault, who saw his first action of the season after being switched from wide out to running back. “I think it was a good first step,” Fitzgerald said of his performance (18 net yards on seven carries). “He’s been coming back from his injuries. To get him back out there is a big, big plus. He’s a dynamic athlete. I’m ecstatic for him. He’s been working diligently to get back on the field. To get the opportunity to play again, especially for a senior, I’m really happy for him.”