After the loss, ambiguity

Northwestern unraveled following its heartbreaking loss to Army in 2011, losing five consecutive games. This year's Wildcats, following their loss to Penn State, don't foresee a letdown approaching.

On Monday, as with Saturday, there was no emotional outpouring. Nor were there knee-jerk reactions.

Northwestern watched a seemingly stable 11-point lead evaporate in yet another fourth quarter meltdown.

It involved a combination of factors, but the only thing clear in the wake of defeat is this: there can be no letdown at Minnesota this week. As the Wildcats still cling to hopes of a Legends Division title, every win takes on special importance.

Last year, NU's first loss of the season – a stunner at Army – began a five-game skid. Senior Brian Arnfelt, part of a defensive front that struggled last week, thinks this team can avoid falling into an extended slump.

"I don't think we necessarily took the right attitude last year," Arnfelt said. "But I don't think with this year's group that's going to be an issue at all."

After taking much of the blame following the Penn State loss, coach Pat Fitzgerald maintained a tone of cautious optimism.

Fitzgerald said he would have made several different decisions in the Penn State game. He pointed to NU's overall struggles on offense as a fault of the coaching staff.

To this team, preparation is crucial. Leading up to the Minnesota contest, the Cats know they need to look forward.

"You can't let a team beat you twice," Fitzgerald said. "You've just got to get back to work."

More questions may be answered as the week progresses – particularly on offense.

NU's quarterback situation experienced a dramatic shift against Indiana, when Trevor Siemian took the reins and attempted 32 of the team's 35 passes. In that outing, Kain Colter shredded the Hoosiers defense as a receiving threat, occasionally running zone reads out of the backfield.

The results were far less successful against Penn State. As Siemian struggled throughout the night, Colter was reduced to a limited role.

The offensive line struggled at certain junctures, often when trying to protect Siemian. As the big men up front adjust to the oft-changing offensive schemes, senior Patrick Ward stressed his unit needs to concentrate on doing its primary job.

"As far as play calling goes, it's not something we particularly care about on the offensive line," Ward said.

Perhaps most alarming from Saturday's statistics: the Cats managed just 135 yards through the air despite using a pass-oriented offense against the Nittany Lions.

Siemian threw several passes that were nearly intercepted, but Ward suggested the problems ran deeper than the quarterback play.

"I just think we were harmed by an overall lack of execution," Ward said. "Too many times, there was one guy that didn't execute the play."

The same was true of the defense, which struggled to slow the Nittany Lions on third down late in the game.

Arnfelt and sophomore Sean McEvilly agreed that any defensive fatigue was self-inflicted. The unit had several opportunities to stop Penn State and quarterback Matt McGloin, but unlike in the first half, they failed to make plays down the stretch.

Fitzgerald considered the Penn State game "one that got away." Still, looking forward, he sees the potential for success. That begins with taking care of Minnesota.

"There were a lot of things we could have done differently to win the football game… But if I would have told you in August we're going to be in control of our destiny to win the Big Ten Championship, would you be happy?

"That's where we sit right now."

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