Football: Northwestern trying not to let season spiral out of control

Mark Vancleave/The Minnesota Daily

Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray is questionable for Saturday’s game with a high ankle sprain. Last season, Gray ran for 160 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries against NU.

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

Last season, Northwestern’s first loss was the start of a five-game slide that took the Wildcats from 2-0 to 2-5. Now, NU is hoping Saturday’s loss to Penn State doesn’t result in a similar tailspin.

The Cats have a 24-hour rule during which NU can think about the game but then need to forget about it before beginning preparations for the next game. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said it is up to the 12-man leadership council, and specifically the four captains, to apply the lessons of last season and not let the team go slide back into old habits.

“You can’t let a team beat you twice,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re a different team. We learned a lot from a year ago. We do have a good mix of guys who were a part of that experience a year ago that were on the field. We’re going to lean on our leadership, which has been solid at this point. Those guys need to be the catalyst.”

Senior Brian Arnfelta captain and member of the leadership councilexperienced last year’s five-game losing streak. He said this year’s team is vastly different from last season’s and he is confident the 2012 squad won’t let one setback ruin NU’s record.

“It’s all about just refocusing,” Arnfelt said. “I don’t think we necessarily took the right attitude last year. But I don’t think with this year’s group that’s going to be an issue at all. I think we have a group of character guys who are willing to answer, who are willing to put in the work during the week, the film study, the practice, the reps, the grind, in order to get the results on Saturday.”

NU’s next challenge is Minnesota, which comes into the game after a bye week. The extra rest for the Golden Gophers will make life difficult for the Cats. Minnesota may also regain the services of quarterback MarQueis Gray, who suffered a high ankle sprain against Western Michigan. If Gray isn’t healed, Max Shortell will lead Minnesota. 

The Golden Gophers’ two quarterbacks have contrasting styles. Gray, a wide receiver through his first two years in Minneapolis, is quick on his feet and can make plays by either running or passing. Shortell is more of a pocket-passer, but he can make plays with his legs if necessary. Fitzgerald said the team will be ready no matter who is behind center for the Golden Gophers.

“We’ll anticipate seeing Gray and then if he doesn’t go we’ll have our Shortell plan prepared,” Fitzgerald said. “Max has got a big-time arm. He can do a lot of things well. He’s an athletic big guy.”

Despite the loss last week, NU still controls its own destiny in the Legends Division, with games coming up against all five other division members. That includes Saturday’s matchup against the Golden Gophers, who have already lost a divisional game.

The team has not talked much about this contest as a division game, focusing more on the fact that it is a conference matchup. Senior offensive tackle Patrick Ward said the team approaches all Big Ten contests the same, no matter which division the opponent is in.

“We really haven’t talked about (this game being within the Legends Division),” Ward said. “The most important thing is that it’s a Big Ten game. Every game we play from here on out is a real important game, and we approach them all the same way.”

Fitzgerald challenged the Cats to keep NU’s fate in their own hands.

“Unfortunately we let one get away,” Fitzgerald said. “But … what are we going to do about it now? That’s our focus.”

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