Football: Pat Fitzgerald and the defender-who-shall-not-be-named

Colin Becht

Every week Northwestern releases a list of players of the week for various categories, including an offensive and defensive player of the week. The accolades, which are voted on by the coaching staff, are released with the same regularity as the depth chart, so they usually aren’t worth noting ­­­- until a title isn’t awarded.

In the spot where NU would normally have listed its defensive player of the week, the space read, “None.”

“We didn’t have anyone play consistently for four quarters,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to put together a full 60 minutes.”

NU’s defense executed well in the first half against Michigan on Saturday, holding the explosive Wolverines’ offense to 14 points while intercepting quarterback Denard Robinson three times. However, the Wildcats (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) collapsed in the second half for the second consecutive week, surrendering 28 points in what turned into a 42-24 defeat.

The loss was NU’s third straight.

“We have to compete and get better, improve fundamentally and execute better,” Fitzgerald said. “When we’ve done that this year, we’ve been pretty good. When we haven’t, we’ve stunk. We’ve lost a couple games here in a row so we need to stop stinking.”

Senior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo agreed with Fitzgerald that the defense’s struggles – NU gave up 56 combined points in the second half of its past two games – stemmed from poor execution, often from just one player at a time.

“The biggest problems we’ve had all come down to one-man breakdowns,” DiNardo said. “You see everybody on defense doing things well. The challenge presents itself when you’re asked to play a four-quarter game and do your job well the entire game.”

DiNardo said although some players may have had strong quarters or halves on Saturday, no one played a complete game, and therefore no one earned the defensive player of the week award.

“(Sophomore defensive end) Tyler Scott played really well for three and a half quarters, really well, as well as maybe anybody’s played this year on defense,” Fitzgerald said. “But for half a quarter he didn’t and that’s kind of indicative of the way we’re playing right now on defense.”

Part of NU’s problems may be accurately identifying those problems. While Fitzgerald and DiNardo highlighted poor execution as the Cats’ chief flaw, sophomore wide receiver/running back Venric Mark said it was NU’s energy that wavered.

“The game plan doesn’t change,” Mark said. “When we come out (in the second half), the team energy is just low. It’s down. The same hunger that we had that first half seems like it’s not there.”

Whatever the Cats’ flaw is, it certainly showed on Saturday as Michigan converted on 14-of-17 third-down plays, including 9-of-10 in the second half. Fitzgerald said that after watching the tape, seven of Michigan’s 14 third-down conversions were due to mistakes on NU’s part.

“The good news is we got them to 17 third downs. The bad news is we didn’t win,” Fitzgerald said. “Seven out of 17 is a different deal than 14 out of 17.”

The Cats were particularly burned by Robinson, who made countless plays with his feet and his arm both to keep drives alive and put up points. Robinson accounted for 84 percent of Michigan’s total offensive yards, passing for 337 while rushing for 117 more. He also scored four touchdowns, twice through the air and twice on the ground.

Part of what enabled Robinson’s success was that he had plenty of time to find open receivers or holes to run through. Neither Robinson nor backup Devin Gardner were sacked on any of the 28 times they dropped back to pass.

“Our pass rush is one thing we can clearly identify that was not where it needed to be Saturday, ” DiNardo said. “If we can get more pressure on the quarterback, that helps out the guys out back.”

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