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Football: Young Northwestern team finds ways to bounce back

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

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“It’s not a pity party. It’s football.”

After what may be Northwestern’s worst loss this season, that attitude, which coach Pat Fitzgerald has instilled in his team, will be put to the test. The Wildcats won after each of their earlier losses, but this time it seems like a whole new animal.

“The guys came in and understood what happened,” Fitzgerald said. “Morale is high (and the) attitude is great. We’ve responded in the past, and we’re going to need our best response of the year this Saturday.”

From the student-athlete’s perspective, living life in college means trying to block out all of the distractions of students talking about the heartbreak. Sophomore center Brandon Vitabile said his friends and family have been very supportive of him and have helped him block out all the discussion about the game. He said it will be difficult to just flush the loss, but he is focusing on the good things that have come from the game.

“It is very tough, we were right there,” Vitabile said. “There’s a lot of positives from it, we played a lot of good football Saturday. We did a lot of things well, we did some things not so well, but it’s good to see that the work we put in does pay off and maybe we’re just a step away. It means we’re doing a great job competing and working hard.”

Most of the onus of bouncing back from difficult losses falls on the team’s leaders, who have been a strong and steady presence for the Cats. Fitzgerald said a team’s leadership defines its character, and this year’s leaders have helped NU stay even-keeled, win or loss. The seniors and captains have been very vocal, but those aren’t the Cats’ only leaders.

Vitabile may only be a redshirt sophomore, but he is now a leader for the younger student-athletes. This is a significant shift in his role from last season, when Vitabile was a young player himself.

“I always try to be a lead-by-example type of guy,” Vitabile said. “(I lead) by my actions, by my attitude and how I talk to everyone else about it. A lot of the younger guys don’t talk too much in meetings; they listen and see how we talk to the coaches and intereact with each other after wins and losses.”

One thing Fitzgerald can’t blame for the losses is effort. He said his team battled in every game and left everything out on the field, and the coaches have to do a better job at turning the effort into success. He pointed specifically to the 53-yard pass to Roy Roundtree on Saturday as an example of his players working hard. He said he doesn’t blame sophomore cornerback Daniel Jones for trying to bat the ball down and make a play instead of taking a penalty in order to prevent a reception.

“Our guys are fighting their tails off,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t fault our guys’ effort in any way, shape or form. They’re giving everything they got, and they just have to keep grinding.”

Although the effort has always been there, the attitude on the sideline has been negative at certain points. Fitzgerald said the morale was a little bit low on the sideline during the fourth quarter Saturday, so when Michigan defensive lineman Brennen Beyer was penalized for a late hit on sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian, the coach showed off his “passion problem.” He said he has different techniques to pump up his team and sometimes being a “knucklehead” is the best thing.

The ploy may not have led the Cats to victory, but Fitzgerald is adamant his team will be ready for Michigan State on Saturday.

“If this morning was any indication, our guys will be excited to play and excited to work (Tuesday),” Fitzgerald said. “I have full confidence that we’ll respond boldly.”