After suffering an unexpected loss at Indiana on Saturday — and losing senior running back Tyrell Sutton (broken wrist) and potentially senior quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) during the game — Fitzgerald tried to find a way to help his Wildcats forget about those issues and focus on their trip to Minnesota on Saturday.
So when Northwestern convened its usual Monday morning meeting (the one that kicks off the week's preparation), Fitzgerald imported a motivational expert who plied his trade when the 33-year-old Fitzgerald was a Wildcats linebacker.
He showed his team some video clips of Matt Foley, Chris Farley's character on "Saturday Night Live" who billed himself as a motivational speaker who lived in a van down by the river.
Did Fitzgerald's gambit work? Official judgment must wait until Saturday's game, but early returns from Tuesday's practice seemed positive.
Three days after committing five turnovers against Indiana without getting any in return, the Daily Herald reported that Northwestern's first-string defense forced the scout-team offense into five turnovers while the first-string offense (as led by backup quarterback Mike Kafka) didn't commit any.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Northwestern's spread offense ranks in the middle of the Big Ten in total yards (378.9 ypg) and scoring (26.5 ppg), but that was when senior RB Tyrell Sutton and QB C.J. Bacher were healthy. Now Sutton is all but out for the regular season after undergoing wrist surgery on Tuesday, while Bacher seems unlikely to play on Saturday after hurting his hamstring. That puts the onus on senior RB Omar Conteh and junior QB Mike Kafka, who both have a handful of career starts under their belt. Kafka is a better runner than Bacher and might have a stronger arm, but he hasn't had a chance to prove he has improved his accuracy since starting four games at the outset of the 2006 season.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: After allowing 20 points or fewer in each of its first five games, the Wildcats defense has surrendered 21 or more in each of the last three games. That's mostly because the competition has improved, but also because they've become more susceptible to big plays. Northwestern still leads the league in sacks, so perhaps it will be able to take advantage of one of Minnesota's relative weaknesses.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Mike Kafka — With senior C.J. Bacher's 25-start streak in jeopardy due to a hamstring injury, this redshirt junior seems in line to make his first start since Sept. 2006. Kafka is a terrific athlete and a legitimate dual-threat quarterback, but watch for the Gophers to force him to complete some passes before they let him go wild as a runner. He has thrown just 11 passes in the last two seasons.
RB Omar Conteh — With senior Tyrell Sutton out after wrist surgery, Conteh takes over the workhorse role in the Wildcats' offense. The Texas native has a similar skill set as Sutton. He's just as capable of a receiver, which is key in NU's attack, though he might not have as much wiggle as Sutton. He owns 223 rushing yards, 7 receptions and 3 touchdowns in a reserve role this year.
S Brad Phillips — The junior safety, who has made several huge hits this year, continues to lead the defense in tackles. He has 67 stops to go with 2 interceptions, 4 breakups and 1 forced fumble. NU's coaching staff named him the team's defensive player of the game in three of the last four weeks.
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Northwestern at Minnesota, Nov. 1 — In August, nobody would have guessed this would be the biggest Big Ten game of the week and the teams would boast a combined 13-3 record. The Wildcats need this game to clinch a bowl berth, while the No. 17 Gophers are trying to keep climbing the BCS ladder while staying in the league title hunt. Both teams look similar on offense with their spread attacks, but Minnesota's defense has done much better at forcing turnovers. The Gophers lead the nation with a plus-15 margin.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You know, Mike's a very confident young man. He's come here to be our starting quarterback. Obviously he has competed for it and won it and his opportunity is now — if it happens." — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald talking about backup quarterback Mike Kafka in the Daily Herald.