Football: Northwestern is 2-3 in its last five games coming off a week with no regular season game. Can the Wildcats get back to .500?

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Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Pat Fitzgerald walks arm-in-arm with Northwestern players. In the last five seasons, the Wildcats are 2-3 following weeks without a regular season game.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor


Football


Following Northwestern’s 49-point loss to Nebraska, coach Pat Fitzgerald laid out what he believes will help his team win its first game against a Power Five opponent this season. 

Making a better game plan and executing it. A strong week of practice. Creating a strategy, preventing explosive plays and adjusting as the opponent adjusts. 

“The big thing that we want to do is stick together,” sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski said. “I will never give up on (the team) because that’s not what a Northwestern Wildcat is. That’s not what Coach Fitz teaches us. That’s not in our repertoire, to quit.” 

A bye week could not have come at a better time for NU (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten). The Cats gave up the most yards in Fitzgerald’s tenure against the Cornhuskers and are currently winless in conference play in October for the second time in three seasons. NU is tied for last in the Big Ten West and is one of six Big Ten teams with multiple conference losses. 

However, the Cats have the chance to continue a streak come Oct. 16 against Rutgers (3-2, 0-2): a second straight win coming off a week with no regular season game.

In the previous two seasons, some of their best offensive performances have occurred directly after the bye and a loss in the game before it. Following a season-opening defeat to Stanford in 2019, NU racked up 441 yards — 276 of which were on the ground — to defeat UNLV 30-14. 

“When we scheduled this year’s schedule however many years ago, we had an option of having a game this week or a bye,” Fitzgerald said in 2019. “(Then-Athletic Director Jim Phillips) and I chose to have a bye for this specific reason… It was kind of by design.”

The following season, the Cats relied on their ground attack as the team rushed for 411 yards — a program high since 2003 — in a 28-10 triumph over Illinois. The win came after NU’s contest against Minnesota was cancelled. Just a week before, the Cats’ chances at the College Football Playoff were extinguished in an upset loss to Michigan State.

However, the Cats are 2-3 in their last five games after a week with no regular season contest. They averaged 29 points and 467 yards in the victories and gave up just 24 combined points and an average of 296 yards. However, the three losses and their accompanying statistics tell a different story, as they came against ranked opponents. 

In losses to No. 10 Wisconsin (33-24 in 2017), No. 14 Michigan (20-17 in 2018) and No. 4 Ohio State (52-3 in 2019), the Cats gave up 306, 376 and 480 yards, respectively. Meanwhile, NU averaged just 215 offensive yards in the defeats. The Cats committed no turnovers against the Wolverines and won the turnover battle 3-2 against the Badgers, yet made two miscues against the Buckeyes.

“It’s a 60-minute game,” quarterback Clayton Thorson said after the Michigan loss, in which NU surrendered a 17-point lead. “We’ve got to (get better) ourselves, and shut out the noise.”

Recent history suggests that an unranked Scarlet Knights squad improves the Cats’ chances of victory, even though ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Rutgers a 59.4% chance of winning. Their offenses match up fairly evenly, but the Cats’ defense is ranked last in the Big Ten, giving up 448.6 yards per game.

With clashes against No. 9 Michigan and No. 3 Iowa upcoming, a win against Rutgers would place NU back at .500, stabilizing the season following a crucial bye week. Fitzgerald said coaches began putting together a game plan for the Scarlet Knights on Wednesday, and the team will shift into a regular game-week routine on Sunday. 

Even though recent statistics and trends may not be in his team’s favor, Fitzgerald knows a victory will not be defined by the bye, but rather by on-field performance.

“We gotta look at what we’re doing fundamentally,” Fitzgerald said. “To me, that’s how you win football games consistently.” 

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Twitter: @dschott328 

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