Football: Wildcats look to improve on little things

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

Northwestern suffered its first loss Saturday , but you wouldn’t know it from listening to coach Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of the Wildcats.

The theme of the week is improving on the little things that allowed NU to succeed in the first five weeks of the season but led to its downfall against Penn State. After the game, Fitzgerald said he took full blame for the loss because he did not do a good enough job of putting the Cats in a position to succeed. He said the players came back Monday concentrated on their individual performances.

“(Junior linebacker Damien) Proby said ‘guys are hungry to be that guy to make the play to win,'” Fitzgerald said. “That’s kind of our attitude right now. (The coaches) just have to give them the weapons to be able to do that.”

Senior defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt echoed his coach’s statements.

“Guys are more than ever hungry to get back at it,” Arnfelt said. “There’s a lot of things we need to work on, a lot of things we can work at and we just have to get ready for Saturday.”

The Cats’ most important task may be to find ways to get their defense off the field quicker. The Nittany Lions controlled the football for nearly 40 minutes Saturday and had five drives longer than three minutes. In the first and fourth quarters alone, Penn State scored 25 points and possessed the ball for 23 minutes and 45 seconds of a possible 30 minutes.

Penn State converted on 9 of 12 third downs in the second half, including 7 of 9 in the fourth quarter alone. The Nittany Lions converted on 5 of 6 fourth down attempts, which helped them maintain possession. The defense looked gassed in the fourth quarter, but sophomore defensive tackle Sean McEvilly refrained from making any excuses.

“We can control when we come off,” McEvilly said. “When we have the opportunity to make big plays. We just have to make big plays and look to each other and keep on pushing each other.”

Another big issue for the Cats was the passing game. The Nittany Lions held sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian to only 135 yards. NU is 95th in the country with 199 passing yards per game, about 55 yards less than last year’s average. In four of their six games, the Cats threw for less than 250 yards and had only one contest with more than 300 yards through the air, the 44-29 win over Indiana on Sept. 29.

There are many reasons why the passing game has not been as prolific this season. One of the biggest is the improvement in the running game, which is now ranked 14th in the nation with 233.5 yards per game, up almost 70 yards from last season. However, Fitzgerald said Saturday’s failure was a combination of issues, which led to inefficient passing.

“We had more drops than we had in previous weeks,” Fitzgerald said. “When we had some guys open, we missed them and then we had some protection issues. It’s a collection of things that we can do better.”

Senior offensive lineman Patrick Ward may have summed up all of the issues for NU on Saturday.

“We were harmed by an overall lack of execution too many times,” Ward said. “Just one guy messing up can really destroy an entire play. We just weren’t executing to the best of our ability and weren’t putting ourselves in good situations.”

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