Football: Northwestern looks to make the most of its unplanned bye week


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Northwestern players study a play on the field. The Cats had their first bye week of the season this week.

Andrew Golden, Gameday Editor


The 2020 Big Ten schedule release on September 19 showed the season would be a sprint for teams, not a marathon — eight regular season games in eight weeks, a ninth intra-conference contest on Championship Saturday and then a potential bowl game. There were no bye weeks so programs could play the maximum number of games possible — or so at least many thought.

COVID-19 has unfortunately taken its toll on teams across the Big Ten. It started with Wisconsin, which cancelled its second and third games after a team outbreak. Maryland missed two games because of high levels of COVID-19 within the team. Ohio State called off its showdown against Illinois last week after coach Ryan Day and a number of players tested positive.

And, just this week, Minnesota announced it wouldn’t play Northwestern this Saturday due to the number of cases on the team. As of Thursday, the Gophers’ program had 49 positive cases since Nov. 19 from 23 student-athletes and 26 staff members.

Now the Wildcats’ focus has shifted to next Saturday against their in-state rival, Illinois.

“We’ve obviously gotta change gears,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Our graduate assistants and (quality control coaches) are gonna be pouring some coffee here over the next couple of hours. (We) got a lot of work to do.”

NU (5-1, 5-1 Big Ten) was one of five Big Ten teams to play all six of its games over the first six weeks. The Cats have still yet to have a case on their team since daily antigen testing began in September.

The game was cancelled shortly before Fitzgerald’s 11 a.m. weekly press conference on Monday. With the unplanned bye week, NU now has more time to fix the problems that plagued it in its 29-20 loss against Michigan State.

Fitzgerald made it clear what the team’s issue last Saturday was — abandoning the fundamentals at the line of scrimmage. He stressed that it wasn’t every play, but it happened enough that the team’s inconsistent play cost them the game.

“For some reason, we didn’t take our fundamental brand of football at the line of scrimmage up to East Lansing,” Fitzgerald said. “It put us in a 17-point hole, it cost us in critical moments in the game and also with that came some communication issues, which we had been so good at in the first five weeks of the season.”

Senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV said opponents have a tendency of watching old film and looking for weaknesses, so the Cats have to make adjustments accordingly. Junior cornerback Greg Newsome II said the team will still work on improving their individual techniques despite the unplanned bye week, but that the week will also give them a chance to get healthier.

Fitzgerald called the season thus far a gauntlet. So far, NU has done a good job of staying healthy off the field and avoiding too many major injuries on it.

“It’s a good thing for our bodies as well,” Newsome said about the bye week. “We’re able to recover a little bit more. Some of the bumps and bruises, we’ll be able to get away.”

Three opponents — Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan State — had bye weeks the week before playing the Cats because of COVID complications. Now, NU will have its first taste of rest this season.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time as the Cats look to wash out the bad taste from their mouths after the team’s first loss. NU has essentially locked up a second Big Ten title in three years. Saturday’s slate of Big Ten games will make it official.

But, the team still has a lot to prove to reach their goals of winning a Big Ten title.

“We’ll respond real well,” Newsome said. “Illinois is a big state rivalry for us, so I think guys will definitely be ready to go mentally. Physically, we’ll be ready to go. We just gotta attack each week like we did.”

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