They had ample reason to: The Wildcats' offense squandered their efforts in consecutive weekends, leading to NU's third and fourth losses.
Many expected Kain Colter to resuscitate a struggling attack. But not even his solid effort could lift the team against Iowa, with sacks, penalties and turnovers decimating the once-mighty unit.
But when NU entered the locker room last Saturday, trailing 10-0, one senior leader sent a powerful message.
So there was no payoff after this display of heart; Northwestern lost in overtime to continue this nightmare season. Still, Fitzgerald and his coaching staff can take solace in an overachieving defense—one carried by an impressive trio of leaders.
"We've definitely improved," VanHoose said. "The defense as a whole, I think we had a solid game [against Iowa]. It starts with the D-line and works back to the DBs."
"I don't think there's a lot we need to draw from defensively," Fitzgerald added. "I think the guys have great confidence. I think they're playing with good chemistry."
Without top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly, the run defense faltered at times. They faced superior challenges–particularly at Wisconsin–and yielded some expected big gains. Fitzgerald, though, was impressed with their overall effort—something he focuses on during game week.
"I haven't been that upset with our run defense," Fitzgerald said. "You can talk about the Ohio State deal, but that was a couple of fit issues—not because guys weren't bringing their big boy pads."
The embattled secondary stepped up last weekend, with true freshman Matt Harris posting an excellent first career start. They'll need an exceptional effort, regardless of quarterback. If Taylor Martinez can't go for Nebraska, Ron Kellogg and Tommy Armstrong are prepared.
"They're all three very talented," Fitzgerald said. "Obviously, Taylor's a very special athlete. We've seen him for a couple of years and you hate to see anyone get injured. We know what that's like around here."
But the Northwestern defense carrying the Northwestern offense? We're still getting used to that.