Football: With classes starting, Cats look to maintain momentum


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Senior Dan Vitale dives over a defender to earn extra yards. His experience and leadership will be needed for the Cats as they attempt to keep up their winning ways.

Huzaifa Patel, Reporter


The Wildcats are 3-0, but the season is just beginning.

Fall classes began Monday, and for Northwestern football players that meant a whole new set of responsibilities to go along with practices, meetings and workouts.

And with conference play starting in two weeks, coach Pat Fitzgerald was confident during Monday’s news conference that his team is prepared to succeed on the field and in the classroom.

“It’s unacceptable to use football as an excuse for poor performance academically, and it’s inexcusable to use academics for poor performance in football,” Fitzgerald said. “The stats don’t lie: We stink in October. I’m tired of it, quite frankly. They’ll raise the bar this year. I’m confident of that.”

Senior superback Dan Vitale agreed.

“You’ve got to be able to focus on both things, football and school,” Vitale said. “I personally think it helps me out because it’s more structured.”

Coming off of a road win against Duke and a climb to No. 17 in the AP rankings, the Cats won’t be sneaking up on anyone anymore, and they’re sure to receive Ball State’s best shot on Saturday.

“The only ranking that matters is how you rank against your best self,” Fitzgerald said. “This game demands that you respect the game and it demands that you respect your opponent.”

Vitale’s advice as a team leader? Don’t listen to the media.

“Don’t believe anything anybody says about you,” Vitale said. “It’s all about us. That’s something we’ve done really well. From a maturity standpoint, we’re a much more mature football team than we’ve been in the last couple of years.

Against Duke, Fitzgerald said he was less focused on the result, and was more concerned about the mistakes.

Fitzgerald mentioned Thorson’s two interceptions as an area needing improvement, as both were thrown into double/triple coverage with better options available for Thorson.

He was critical of wide receiver Christian Jones, specifically the wide receiver group’s lackluster blocking.

“I’m not putting it all on his shoulders, but I’m putting it on his shoulders from a leadership standpoint,” Fitzgerald said. “We blocked atrociously on the perimeter. Our wide receivers were awful.”

But it wasn’t all bad last Saturday in Durham.

“On offense, our player of the week was Dan Vitale,” Fitzgerald said. “(He) did a great job blocking, of the five knockdowns he had, four went for first downs.”

Fitzgerald also complimented the offensive line, saying they improved as the game went on. But nothing pleased him more than the special teams unit.

“Our big playmaker was (junior running back) Warren Long,” Fitzgerald said. “He was dominant. He played as well in the kicking game as we’ve maybe had in my 16 years here on staff.”

Even though Long provided a game-changing performance, sophomore running back Justin Jackson continued to receive the bulk of the touches.

When asked about Jackson’s workload to start the season, Fitzgerald mentioned it was a little much.

“He’s a throwback running back,” Fitzgerald said, saying Jackson gets tougher the more he carries the ball. “We’ve got to spread it around a little more though. Thirty-five (carries) is too much.”

He also touched on the rotation and the lack of fixed starters at different positions, particularly with the offensive line seeming to imply it was more about competition than fatigue from the North Carolina heat.

“We roll with a lot of guys on both offense and defense,” Fitzgerald said. “It wasn’t a tryout, but I told the guys this morning, you’re not going to keep playing if you don’t keep performing at a high level.”

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