Forman: Wootton’s speech at half U-Turn

Matt Forman

There are very few situations when Pat Fitzgerald or his players overstate the importance of one game. Most times, they say every game is as important as the next – they’re just trying to go 1-0 that week. So when junior linebacker Quentin Davie said the following at practice on Wednesday, you know how much this game meant:

“This is the turning point for the season,” Davie said. “This is going to determine whether we go up or down. If we go out there and fight with everything we have, we’re going to keep going up. If we don’t, we’re just going to die and go down.”

Davie couldn’t have been more honest. If Northwestern lost to Indiana, the season would have been over. The Wildcats would have been 4-4 with upcoming games against No. 12 Penn State and No. 4 Iowa.

It looked like that would be the case, at least through the first 18 minutes of the game. Simply put, NU’s season was on life support. I was preparing for a vacation over winter break, but not one in Florida, Arizona or Detroit, the sites of the potential bowl games the Cats are in contention for. Before you could say ‘Hoosier Daddy,’ NU found itself in a 28-3 hole.

But then, to take one from Old Notre Dame’s Victory March, something “woke up the echoes cheering” for NU. And then, someone “sent the volley cheer on high” and “shook down the thunder from the sky.” That someone was Corey Wootton. And that something was his rousing halftime speech.

“He was very emotional, more than usual, and did a great job of telling us what we need to do and how we need to get there,” sophomore running back Scott Concannon said. “A few words in between made it great.”

As the coaching staff went over game plans and made halftime adjustments, the biggest guy on the team made his presence felt. Wootton walked into the locker room and gave his motivational speech in front of 100 teammates. They listened. And responded with the greatest comeback in school history, clawing from 25 points down to get the win. More than anything, I wish I could have been in the locker room to hear the few ‘choice’ words Wootton opted to use.

“Specific words I couldn’t tell you, but he just told us this is a pivotal game in the season,” Concannon said. “We needed to go out and turn it around or else the season may not go where we want it to. This is the turning point in the season, and we all took his words and tried to make it a reality on the field.”

As Fitzgerald likes to say, NU has given itself an opportunity to make the season meaningful. Through eight games, the Cats are 5-3 and need just one more win to become bowl eligible. It may not come in either of the next two weeks, but if NU knocked off the Nittany Lions or the Hawkeyes, it would solidify the Cats’ bowl status. After all, Champs Sports Bowl representatives were in the press box Saturday.

But the bottom line is this: It’s time NU puts more emphasis on starting games on the right paw. Fitzgerald stresses finishing games, but his team has been outscored by a combined margin of 35-6 in the first quarter of Big Ten contests, and that doesn’t count Michigan State stalling on the 1-yard line last week. NU has done an incredible job of making fans pull their hair out and suffer heart attack after heart attack and showing enough fight that no deficit is too big. It seems like the Cats’ bread and butter is the 21-0 hole.

Considering the team places such importance on finishing, this is the time it needs to shine. The team is entering the fourth quarter of the season. As Fitzgerald said, “When you get to the last month, that’s what you work on for 11 months of the year, for one month. …

The bar gets more weight on it, and the challenges get harder and harder.”

NU can make the final four games significant by starting strong against the Nittany Lions next week. Wootton should give a pre-game speech this time around.