Wildcats remain upbeat

Northwestern's season-opener, a 42-41 win over Syracuse, left more reasons for concern than anything else. It is an important week of practice for a team needing to make improvements. Despite the many questions surrounding the Wildcats, they remain upbeat.

After the final whistle blew on Saturday, Pat Fitzgerald could have acted subdued, or even disappointed. His Wildcats did, after all, squander a 22-point lead against a mediocre Big East team.

When Fitzgerald stepped to the podium, those options were quickly dispelled. The head coach supported his players – even those who struggled – and he certainly didn't apologize.

That same upbeat tone has evidently carried over to the practice field. An NU squad teeming with confidence found itself in the win column, which is what really matters.

"That's kind of our mission, to get the opener win and we've gotten that done," Fitzgerald said. "We've checked that box. Now it's about maturing as a team."

Much like the 2011 edition, this year's Cats struggled to keep an opposing quarterback in check. Ryan Nassib erupted for 311 second-half yards to set up the stunning Syracuse comeback. Although Commodores quarterback Jordan Rodgers and his primary target Jordan Matthews should pose another challenge, Fitzgerald reiterated his faith in the secondary.

"I guarantee you Rodgers will come after our corners on Saturday… Bring it," Fitzgerald said. "These guys are gonna keep getting better and we believe in them."

Even after the Saturday debacle, Fitzgerald made only one change in the defensive starting lineup— a clear vote of confidence to the overall unit. After being plagued by injuries in the 2011 season, fifth-year senior Jared Carpenter will replace Davion Fleming, who struggled with inconsistency in the opener.

Carpenter mainly attributed defensive struggles to what he called "50-50" plays, an optimistic assessment by any stretch. This does partially ring true, though, especially in the case of Demetrius Dugar. On several occasions, Dugar had excellent downfield coverage, but was either narrowly beaten or whistled for pass interference.

New addition Quinn Evans fell down when covering Syracuse receiver Jeremiah Kobena late in the game. The result was a 50-yard touchdown pass that brought the Orange within a possession. Carpenter managed to spin these errors into an overall positive as the team looks forward.

"We were in position on almost every play Saturday," he said. "Especially on those big plays, we were in position. We had some guys trip over their own feet and just didn't make the play."

Less needed to be said about the offense, as quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian both succeeded in leading the offense to scoring drives. Still, there could certainly be room for unease.

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall dialed up only 32 passing plays on Saturday, leaving very few targets for a deep receiving corps. Still, Christian Jones noted that even in competition, the receivers feed off each other on the practice field.

"It's been really relaxed," he said. "We're all giving each other reps and giving each other a chance because we know that at any time, somebody can go down. You know, anybody can step up and do their thing."

Whether it came smoothly or dramatically, Northwestern is 1-0. That might be the easiest way to refute critics and instill positive attitudes in a young team entering a pivotal weekend.

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