Football: Wildcats put blowout loss behind them, begin Michigan preparation

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor

If there has been a theme to coach Pat Fitzgerald’s weekly news conferences this year, it is this: an inverse relationship between Northwestern’s play on the field and Fitzgerald’s mood.

When the Wildcats perform well, Fitzgerald has been full of criticisms two days later, calling out mental mistakes by young players who have played well. When the team has played poorly — as they did Saturday in their worst loss of the season, a 48-7 trouncing at the hands of Iowa — he has stayed upbeat, focusing on the upcoming week and attempting to put the previous week’s performance behind him.

That didn’t change Monday, when a frank but cheerful Fitzgerald admitted NU “got our butts whipped” by the Hawkeyes and offered his usual array of praise for Michigan, which visits Ryan Field on Saturday.

Bouncing back from a blowout

There was little in the way of praise for the team’s play from Fitzgerald following the 41-point blowout, NU’s worst since 2010. For the first time this season, the Cats’ coaches did not name a defensive player of the week. Fitzgerald said NU’s players didn’t win “more than three or four one-on-one battles” during the entire game.

He said the team needs to turn its frustration from the loss into motivation for this week and the rest of the season.

“Sometimes you gotta embrace the suck. We were bad,” he said. “There’s no magical formula. You just gotta embrace it.”

Fitzgerald brushed off broader criticism about the state of the NU football program, saying at the end of each season, the rest of the coaching staff is evaluated on their entire body of work and that he has “never met” those who criticize him for too much loyalty to players or assistant coaches who are not living up to expectations.

Player updates

There were no major changes to NU’s depth chart for the Michigan game. At right tackle, Jack Konopka replaced Eric Olson, but both have appeared regularly for the Cats this season. Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, who was replaced by junior Zack Oliver late in Saturday’s game, remains the starter. Senior linebacker Collin Ellis, who has been out for several weeks with a concussion, is “week-to-week,” Fitzgerald said, and likely will not play Saturday. Junior Miles Shuler was replaced by junior Cameron Dickerson on the depth chart at his wide receiver spot but remains on the depth chart as the team’s top punt returner.

Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell was expected to play against Iowa, but Fitzgerald said his hamstring injury tightened up on Thursday and Campbell was held out. The coach was at his most emotive expressing his disappointment at the way the injury has crippled the senior season for Campbell, one of the team’s captains.

“I don’t know if there’s a guy in the country that works harder than he does,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s trying everything he possibly can to get back and his body’s just responding the way that it is. I’m at a loss for words for him, because he was playing at an all-Big Ten level. It’s not from a lack of effort on his part, I promise you that.”

Vitabile earns an academic honor

Senior center Brandon Vitabile was one of 17 players nationwide named to the National Football Foundation’s National Scholar-Athlete Class of 2014. Vitabile, who has started all 45 games of his NU career, was one of three Big Ten players recognized.

“It’s a great honor,” Vitabile said. “I’m just glad I could represent this program in a positive way and show what’s capable here and what we do.”

Vitabile follows in the footsteps of fellow offensive lineman Patrick Ward, who earned the honor as a senior in 2012.

“It’s really cool that we have the chance to get recognized like that,” he said, “because it’s not just me, it’s the whole team that does great things, academically and on the field.”

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