Gameday: Fitzgerald, Wildcats hope up-downs are the answer


Daily file photo by Susan Du

Coach Pat Fitzgerald has cracked down the past two weeks, forcing Northwestern’s players to do mid-practice up-down drills in an attempt to toughen up the team. The Wildcats are 0-2 entering Saturday’s game with Western Illinois.

Alex Putterman, Sports Editor


Northwestern’s offense, in helmets and full pads, drops to the ground, performs a synchronized push-up, stands up and collapses back down for another one.

The unit has committed some sort of mishap, a missed block, a dropped pass, anything to incite the ire of the Wildcat coaching staff. Thus, practice is paused momentarily for some mild corporal punishment, the notorious “up-down” drill.

NU is 0-2 for the first time since 2004, coming off surprising and disappointing losses to California and Northern Illinois.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Wednesday that the team doesn’t plan to make major schematic or personnel changes. Improvement will be a result of the same players in the same system playing better.

So the whistles keep coming. Sometimes for the offense, sometimes for the defense. Fitzgerald is far from the first coach to use up-downs as a motivational and disciplinary tactic — “That’s like chapter four of coaching 101,” he said — but the ninth-year head coach had never turned to that page until last week.

“I haven’t had to,” he said.

Fitzgerald’s decision to channel his inner Herman Boone implies enhanced stakes for Saturday’s game against Western Illinois, NU’s yearly Football Championship Subdivision opponent. The coach wouldn’t admit this game is more important than, say, last year’s week four meeting with Maine when the Cats were 3-0, but it doesn’t take a microscope to read between the lines.

“We stink from a record standpoint right now, so every game is really important,” he said. “For the last two weeks, everybody that’s ever put on a purple and white should be embarrassed with the way this team has played. And the only way it’s going to get fixed is if that group of guys in the locker room makes the decision to go out and do it.”

Western Illinois shouldn’t be cause for anxiety, but given where NU’s program is now, having lost nine of its last 10 games, the Cats might be sweating. Saturday provides opportunity only for disappointment: A comfortable win is expected, even necessary, while a loss or even a close win would portend disaster the rest of the way.

“You hate (the whistle) because when you hear you have up-downs that obviously means you did something wrong,” senior safety and team captain Ibraheim Campbell said. “That’s driving you to push that much harder. There are tangible consequences to your actions, and it makes you want to do that much better for your teammates.”

The question for the Cats is whether that intangible accountability is enough to drag them back into bowl contention. Fitzgerald’s assertion that the team isn’t currently tough enough paints somewhat of a best-case scenario. Maybe motivational tactics can whip NU into shape. Maybe some mid-practice up-downs will wake the players up and inspire them to dominate Western Illinois.

But if the problems run deeper, if the players simply aren’t as good as advertised, then NU has a problem.

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian has caught the most criticism for the two season-opening losses. He’s averaged only 5.85 yards per attempt through two games, with two touchdowns and three interceptions and (sample-size caveats applying) posted by far career lows in quarterback rating and ESPN’s adjusted QBR.

Toward the end of the loss to Northern Illinois, Siemian hurt his ankle, which was still bothering him Wednesday. The senior said he plans to play Saturday but wouldn’t guarantee it. Under different circumstances, resting Siemian for a matchup with an FCS school might make sense, but given that 0-2 record, now seems no time for such caution.

“Something had to change,” Siemian, who drops only to one knee during up-downs to protect his ankle, said of the newly intensified practices. “You can’t just let it keep the sliding the way we did, and I think guys are responding well to it.”

After Saturday, NU’s road gets tougher. Trips to Penn State and Minnesota and home games with Wisconsin and Nebraska won’t be easy for a team that couldn’t hang with Northern Illinois.

Which makes Western Illinois a crucial dress rehearsal and an opportunity to anchor the ship, if not turn it all the way around.

Fitzgerald and the Cats can only hope two weeks of hard practice will be enough when the teams line up for the opening kickoff and the referee blows his whistle.

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02