Time to embrace next man up

Monday's press conference was a gloomy one, with Pat Fitzgerald listing 20 Wildcats in his injury report. There's still no time for excuses, writes Steven Goldstein.

Hearing Venric Mark's name called on the weekly injury report has become tradition on the Northwestern football beat this year. But then came the others.

Trevyon Green. Tyler Scott. Tony Jones. Nick VanHoose. Four vital starters that make up only a fraction of the lengthy list of players currently sidelined with injuries. Pat Fitzgerald mentioned 11 members of the two-deep that would be unable to suit up for a game this weekend. Enter the best-timed bye week in the Big Ten, and call it a reset button that changes how this wash of a 2013 season can be approached.

We knew that injuries have been a problem all year long; last year's healthiest team in the conference has seen its luck free fall this time around. But Monday's injury report took the issue to a new height, and this list reads more like a caricature than an actual update.

"It's been a hard month. We've battled our fannies off. This toughness is something we take great pride in," Fitzgerald said. "If we didn't have bad luck, we wouldn't have any luck at all."

With a bevy of new names that will inevitably be listed as "day-to-day," and with an extra week to process everything that's gone down in the past month and still run hypothetical bowl scenarios, Northwestern has the ability to change the expectations for the remainder of this season. There's no way to excuse the blowout in Wisconsin, or the underwhelming performances against Minnesota and Iowa. There's sure as hell no way to excuse a 49-yard Hail Mary. But the Cats have a unique opportunity now: win out, or at least win two of three, and alter the end of the narrative from disappointing to triumphant.

If the Wildcats knock off Michigan and Illinois, fans can remember an overmatched, injury-ridden team finding the heart and hustle to become bowl eligible in dramatic fashion. If Northwestern can somehow upset Michigan State, the story gets all the sweeter. The new series of injuries doesn't give the program an excuse to continue losing, and it doesn't justify failing to reach the postseason. But the injuries do present a Northwestern team that woefully failed to meet its own expectations a chance for redemption.

Fitzgerald stressed the "next-man-up mentality," and the Wildcats will need it more than ever starting next week against the Wolverines. It'll be easy to fall back on the bad luck and tough breaks, but if the next man up really believes he can still make a difference and salvage something this season, then Northwestern has found a way to end things on a high note and make the offseason a whole lot easier to handle.

Fitz and co. always preach about adversity. Here's the chance to step up. Regardless of who's at running back, or how young both starting corners are, or how often the defensive line will need to rotate, that lengthy list of injuries is the one thing this team can still conquer in a season marred by failed expectations.

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