MADISON - At Big Ten media day, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald stood up and told the world that his program was likely the most unified team in the country. Less than two months later, he called their effort “embarrassing” and a disgrace to the players who played before them, which includes himself.
“We are a work in progress,” said Fitzgerald, whose teams is preparing to host No.17 Wisconsin at Ryan Field Saturday for the first time since 2009. “It’s not only on the field, but it’s the way we want our guys to commit themselves every day. It’s nothing major, it’s the little things…We’re going to run a discipline program here, period, end of discussion.”
Growth has been the steady theme for a Wildcats program stuck in reverse over the last 12 months. After finishing 5-7 to end a five year bowl streak, Northwestern transitioned into an offseason dominated by off-the-field distractions. Departing quarterback Kain Colter drew attention to a movement to unionize the players at Northwestern. That topic became the central discussion until the Wildcats lost tailback Venric Mark (transfer) and wide receiver Christian Jones (knee injury) before their opener.
“Last year was a tough situation,” said senior safety Ibraheim Campbell. “This whole union deal was a tough situation. The fact that we were able to stay together and come closer during that is a testimony to how strong we are and how united we are. We care about this University and this team.”
The unity didn’t happen overnight. Campbell pointed to disagreements and tension between teammates that were defused as quickly as they started but happened nonetheless.
“Guys got to the point that they realized whatever they were fighting over was ultimately for the same thing,” he said. “We care so much about our school because we are passionate for what we’re doing. We want to be great.”
Northwestern was perceived as nearly a great team last September. Building momentum after tying a school record with 10 wins and leading the program to its first bowl win in 64 years, they started the season 4-0 and were ranked No.16 in the country.
That was before the “Curse of Gameday.” With ESPN’s popular pregame show on campus for its game against No.4 Ohio State. Losing a late lead and falling 40-30 to Ohio State, Northwestern’s seven-game plunge began, which included a 35-6 loss in Madison the next weekend, four losses by one possession, one in overtime, one on a Hail Mary and one in triple overtime.
“We definitely didn’t respond the way we wanted to,” said fifth-year senior quarterback Trevor Siemian. “Any time you are in a close game like (Ohio State) you want to respond the next week. It kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The one thing that stuck out to me is we really played a physical game against Ohio State. We were banged up coming out there, so going into Madison and playing another really physical team, we weren’t as healthy as we needed to be.”
The healing process started after a 37-34 victory over Illinois to end the season. In the weeks that followed through winter conditioning, spring practices and summer workouts, Campbell said the people who were forced to step up into leadership roles started to reflect people voicing opinions that were accepted, rather than rejected.
Northwestern players described the union ordeal as a team-building experience, but doing their traditional offseason workouts with Navy SEALS drove the point home that players needed to hold one another accountable.
“Ever since the winter we’ve had this ownership aspect to the team, especially when you look back at last year and self-evaluated” said Siemian. “At a certain point you’ve got to say the bucks stops here and hold players accountable.”
That ownership allowed Northwestern to start slowly putting the pieces back together. Starting the year 0-2 start, running the Wildcats record to 1-9 in their last 10 games, Northwestern relied on its strength – the defense – in a 24-7 win over Western Illinois on Sept.20 and turned in a 29-6 victory over Penn State that turned more than a few heads.
After allowing 1,191 yards in the three games to start the year, Northwestern’s defense allowed only 276 total yards at Penn State, forced two turnovers and held quarterback Christian Hackenberg to a 12.7 quarterback rating (22-for-45, 216 yards, no touchdowns, one interception).
“It goes back to being able to trust each other and having that comfort that you know where guys are going to be,” said Campbell, who will be out against Wisconsin due to a hamstring injury. “It makes your job a lot easier when you don’t have to worry about things that are out of your control. There’s no substitute for experience, and the majority of our defense has that. It’s hard to replace. It makes for a very exciting mix.”
The offense’s 29 points were the most the offense had delivered all season, a product Fitzgerald believed came from better offensive line production and getting more wide receivers back into the mix to create a better rotation.
That should take some of the pressure off Siemian, who hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in the last two games, but is starting to take some steps forward with pieces being settled around him.
“I think we’re gaining on getting towards (turning) the corner, but we’re not quite there yet to where we all believe this team should be on an anytime basis,” said Fitzgerald. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”