Better discipline, focus key for Wildcats

By Etheria Modacure

The Northwestern University Wildcats aren’t taking anything for granted heading into Big Ten conference play. The Wildcats went 4-0 in nonconference play with victories over Vanderbilt University (SEC), Illinois State University (NCAA FCS), Rice University (Conference USA) and Central Michigan University (MAC).

The team knows it’s in for a battle this season as it tries to capture its fourth Big Ten championship in the last 15 years. Northwestern hasn’t won the Big Ten championship since 2000, when it shared the title with Purdue University and University of Michigan.

Given that the team has won its first four games of the season, the Wildcats had an uncharacteristic game against Central Michigan when it committed 7 penalties in the first quarter Fitzgerald acknowledged.

“I don’t know if we can beat ourselves right now,” Fitzgerald said after the Wildcats’ 30-25 victory over Central Michigan on Sept. 25, in which the team committed 11 penalties. “We need to play a lot cleaner, more focused and more disciplined if we’re going to win a game the rest of the year.”

After their victory over Central Michigan, the Wildcats are one of five teams undefeated in nonconference play (Michigan, Ohio State University, Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin), but it didn’t mean the team was celebrating this achievement.

“I promise you it wasn’t Mardi Gras,” Fitzgerald said, acknowledging the mood in the locker room.

He said games similar to their contest against Central Michigan could prove to be a valuable learning experience for the team.

“We’ve got to keep learning from these experiences that we have,” Fitzgerald said. “You look at our roster, and we’re not playing a lot of seniors. We’re a relatively young football team.” There are currently 11 seniors on the team.

With the Wildcats not playing Ohio State and Michigan this season, Northwestern won’t face two highly-regarded quarterbacks—Terrelle Pryor  of  Ohio State and Denard Robinson of Michigan.

Northwestern will play four games against teams who are ranked in the top 25 of the AP rankings after four nonconference games. The Wildcats have home games against Michigan State, the University of Iowa and will play the University of Illinois at Wrigley Field. They will face Penn State and Wisconsin on the road.

Northwestern has an advantage over most Big Ten teams as its passing offense is ranked 27th in the country through its first four games. The Wildcats are second in Big Ten teams with an average of 270 passing yards per game.

Iowa’s passing offense is ranked 32nd in the nation, Michigan State 48th, Wisconsin 55th and Penn State 72nd. The Wildcats’ starting quarterback, Dan Persa, leads the nation with a 186.3 passer rating through four games.

When asked what Northwestern’s offense needs to do to remain consistent, Persa acknowledged improving the running game, which ranks 64th in the nation with an average of 149.8 rushing yards

per game.

“In the Big Ten you’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Persa said. “I think the more balanced our offense [remains], the better it’ll be.”

Fitzgerald noted the teams’ ability to make plays when the opportunity presents itself as the competition gets stiffer.

“That’s why you play Big Ten football, make plays, have fun,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve just got to make plays when theypresent themselves.”

Northwestern is ranked third in the country in passing efficiency. Its offense has scored an average of 30 points per game through four games but is ranked 53rd in scoring offense.

While the team’s offense continues to show improvement, its game against Central Michigan didn’t help its defense statistically as it is ranked 77th in total defense.

Central Michigan’s quarterback Ryan Radcliff threw for 347 yards and two touchdowns on Sept. 25, as the Wildcats have given up an average of 373.8 yards of offense to their opponents. The turnover margin has helped this team complete an undefeated nonconference schedule.

The Wildcats gained 12 turnovers through four games for a margin of 1.75 which is the sixth best margin in the country.

One player who is around the ball frequently is senior outside linebacker Quentin Davie. Davie, who only had one interception last season, has surpassed that total with three interceptions against Illinois State and Rice. In the Wildcats game against Central Michigan Davie recovered a fumble. He credited the coaching staff for its defensive scheme and the focus made on defense to make it successful.

Ohio State is the only other Big Ten team ranked higher than Northwestern, as it is the second best team in the nation with turnovers. Northwestern has intercepted eight passes which is higher than any other team in the conference.

Davie said the defense doesn’t need to get caught up doing things outside of its defensive technique. When that happens, the lack of focus leads to big plays , he said.

“We just need to focus on the things we do,” Davie said. “Within the scheme, we need to play to our technique. Plays happen within our technique.”