Football: Despite big win, Fitzgerald has team focused on Boilermakers

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s been a good week for Jack Mitchell.

After a clutch performance that saw him nail the game-winning kick in Northwestern’s most improbable victory in recent memory, the sophomore kicker was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week.

“I think he really had his routine down in-game,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He did not play well against Michigan, but he rebounded really well.”

On the team level, seniors safety Ibraheim Campbell and receiver Kyle Prater were named the defensive and offensive players of the week for their roles in the upset.

“Arguably (Prater) had the best game of his career,” Fitzgerald said.

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian and the offensive line also drew praise for their dramatically improved play. Fitzgerald highlighted Siemian’s improved health in particular as a reason for the offensive outburst.

Plagued by an ankle injury since the second week of the season, Siemian was at his most mobile Saturday and even had a rushing touchdown on a quarterback scramble.

“I think it gives him a lot of confidence,” Fitzgerald said of Siemian’s health. “Schematically we were able to do things that we haven’t all year.”

At the opposite end of the health spectrum, Fitzgerald announced that sophomore defensive tackle Greg Kuhar has suffered a lower body injury that requires season-ending surgery. Junior wide receiver Miles Shuler has also been ruled out for this week’s game.

With no margin for error left if the Wildcats want to become bowl eligible, Fitzgerald has the team focused on its upcoming matchup against Purdue with what he’s repeatedly called a “playoff mentality.”

“It hits you right in the face,” junior cornerback Nick VanHoose said. “The fact that if we don’t win this, we’re not going to go to a bowl game. … It definitely puts more motivation on us to play for our teammates.”

But if Saturday’s shocker over the Fighting Irish is any indication, this is precisely the situation where NU can thrive.

“We’ve been playing better this year when our back is against the wall,” senior linebacker Jimmy Hall said, “when no one thinks we can do it.”

After surrendering 40 points and 498 total yards to Notre Dame’s offense, VanHoose and Hall both stressed the importance of an improved performance from the Cats’ defense. The Boilermakers haven’t posted stellar offensive numbers this season but have improved since making a mid-season switch to quarterback Austin Appleby.

“You can’t take any team for granted,” VanHoose said. “(Purdue) has a lot of speed, a lot of playmakers. We’re excited for the challenge.”

That sentiment is shared by the offense, even against a porous Boilermakers defense that is giving up 422 yards per game.

“We can’t let off the gas pedal,” redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Alviti said. “We have to keep focus and keep preparing and not take Purdue lightly.”

Fitzgerald pointed out the team has dealt with plenty of struggles this season but does not have nearly as much experience dealing with triumph.

“I think it’s easy to respond to adversity,” Fitzgerald said. “The hard thing is to respond to success.”

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