Forman: Fitzgerald’s movie treat proves trick

Matt Forman

When Pat Fitzgerald passed popcorn out to members of the media at Wednesday’s practice, he said he distributed the movie theater snack because it was opposite day.

Secretly, I thought the kind gesture meant one of two things. Either it meant Fitzgerald was going Terrell Owens on us, telling us to “getcha popcorn ready,” which made sense given the results of the last two matchups between Northwestern and Minnesota. Or Fitzgerald was saying his team was hungry for a win, which made sense because it lost a heartbreaker four days earlier against Syracuse.

But what I didn’t think it meant came true: There was too much butter on those ever-so satisfying gourmet kernels. For the second straight week, it meant the Wildcats let a game slip right through their hands. And ironically, Fitzgerald’s team used opposite day too early in the week. Had they saved it for Saturday, there would have been a different result.

Much like they did against the Orange, the Cats went into the fourth quarter with a lead. Much like it did against Syracuse, NU couldn’t put the game away, and a late turnover by senior quarterback Mike Kafka was involved in the team’s inability to put a game-winning drive together.

Every day, everything the team does, from stretching to the final horn at practice, focuses on one of the program’s five F values: “The Finish.” There’s no real way to teach it, and there’s no real answer on how to fix it.

“I don’t have a magic pill,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t have a magic call. I don’t have a magic formula besides trust and confidence.”

So, this is what it comes down to for Fitzgerald, who has built his program on finishing. Once is a mistake. Twice is a trend. Three times is a problem. He can’t let it happen next week. One thing is for sure – if the Cats want to win football games, they’ll have to learn from the past two weeks.

Without question, it starts with the team’s ability to tackle, especially in the second level. Apparently it wasn’t just the team’s hands that were buttery on Saturday, it was also their equipment.

“They either put grease on their shoulder pants or jerseys, or we just decided not to tackle with our chest and with our feet,” Fitzgerald said.

It’s not just tackling that NU has to improve on. There were multiple interceptions that the team left on the field. There were several blocking breakdowns that led to sacks. There were a few missed receivers.

But key players make big plays in important situations. When the team has the ball with less than two minutes on the clock, it has to make a play. It can’t wait for something to happen. Remember Brendan Smith’s pix-six game-winning interception last year at Minnesota? That’s the kind of play I’m talking about.

The most peculiar thing about the team’s late-game struggles is the core leadership group is the same as last year’s, and the school has had a tradition of winning thrilling games. That’s where the nickname Cardiac Cats comes from. Right now, NU is lacking that swagger.

Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker said the game came down to who wanted it more, but I don’t buy that. Kafka said the difference is in the team’s ability to “smell blood and go for the kill,” and I do buy that.

Every player who spoke to the media after the game said they had no doubts NU would hold on for the win. Sherrick McManis called the fourth quarter “our quarter.” It was theirs for the taking. They just have to do it.

It has to be frustrating as a coach when you do everything right, you put everyone in a position to succeed and they don’t. So the loss is in Fitzgerald’s hands for passing out popcorn. If he passes out soda this week and calls Saturday opposite day, maybe the team won’t come out flat.

Sports editor Matt Forman is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]