Bye week will be Walker’s toughest task

Mark Lazerus is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected].

So your name was floating around every major sports publication as a shoo-in for Coach of the Year, ahead of even Lou Holtz. And The New York Times was running pictures of your tailback. And was hosting chats with your quarterback. And Bobb Hall had “Rose Bowl” painted all over the entrance.

And your team just hosted a game against Purdue with Rose Bowl implications, in front of a national television audience with Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News in the press box, with the biggest crowd of the year looking on, thousands of whom were feverishly waiting to jump aboard the hottest ticket in town, the five-year reunion tour of the 1995 Cinderella Cats.

And you lost. Badly. With 106 yards in penalties, terrible kick coverage and overall sloppiness.

And you’re saddled with 13 days off, with the cruel fate of a bye week which will give your ailing wideout and safety time to rest, but everyone else time to dwell. And a surprisingly scary Minnesota squad is waiting to welcome you to the Metrodome. And worst of all, suddenly Iowa seems like a must-win again.

So what do you do if you’re Randy Walker and your Northwestern football team is practicing like, well, last year’s Northwestern football team?

“I holler at ’em a lot,” Walker said with a smirk.

That’s what it boiled down to Thursday at practice, as a weak workout ended with a clunky conditioning drill. Walker teed off on his players, berating them in an open practice on how they’re a better team than they’re playing, and a more mentally sound team than they’re acting.

The words were colorful, but the message was clear: Walker isn’t going to tolerate any more mental lapses, be it in practice or with the world watching on ESPN.

These two weeks will likely prove to be Walker’s toughest since debuting as NU coach. Sure, he’s had some heady tasks in the past — like keeping his players from impaling themselves on the University Hall spire as last year’s 3-8 season turned into a death march of 34-point losses.

But this is different. It’s no longer just about keeping his players focused. He has to keep them focused and playing well enough to stay in the hunt for a Big Ten title, which is still a very realistic goal.

But with the hype of the past couple weeks, the team clearly had a letdown against Purdue. A similar performance against Minnesota could signal the end of those championship dreams — just ask Illinois. Walker knows that, hence the vehement speech after Thursday’s practice.

“You have days like today, where I had to get after their asses a little bit,” Walker said. “I was angry and I have a passion, and when we come out here, we have to practice the right way, and if I don’t see it, I’m going to address it.”

It’s easy to get a team hyped and focused when a Big Ten opponent is mere days away. You lay out your game plan, you isolate key matchups and you work on a system that will help you win that particular game.

During the bye week, however, players’ minds wander. With Friday and Saturday off, many players are going home, visiting friends or just sleeping through the weekend. Walker is working on more general things — getting the Cats “two weeks better.” And he admits it’s been tough. After all, it’s the players’ first weekend off in nearly three months.

So not only does Walker have to keep the Cats upbeat after Saturday’s bubble-bursting performance, but he has to keep their attention long enough to improve passing routes, prevent the offensive line from getting unnecessary holding calls and mend the holes in the kickoff coverage — the latter of which was what set him off in the first place Thursday.

This is Walker’s true test. And if the team comes out refreshed — and more importantly, noticeably improved — then Walker will be able to knock Holtz down another peg on those Coach of the Year polls. And the Cats will be able to knock off Minnesota. And Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News will be back at Ryan Field for the Michigan game. And Bobb can even keep its window dressing a little longer.

And best of all, Iowa can go back to just being Iowa.