While attendance numbers have increased at Ryan Field from 25,547 attendees in its home opener to 41,115 against Michigan State, winning Big Ten games at home has become troubling for Northwestern University’s football team.
The Wildcats have been unable to close out home games in their last two contests against Big Ten conference opponents. Northwestern has either been tied or leading at halftime against Purdue University and Michigan State, but then failed to end the game with a victory.
Sixty minutes of football has not been played consistently by the team as it has been outscored 38-17 in the second half by the Boilermakers and Spartans.
Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said he was disappointed in the team’s last home game result where the Wildcats held a 17-0 lead against then No. 8 ranked Michigan State, only to lose the game 35-27.
“We’ve got to find a way to make some plays down the stretch against good football teams,” Fitzgerald said after the Wildcats game against the Spartans on Oct. 23.
Fitzgerald said the team had a lot of opportunities to close out the game but failed to make the knockout punch against a highly-ranked team. He mentioned he wasn’t disappointed losing to a team who was ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press polls, compared to its loss against Purdue.
Before the Big Ten conference opener against Minnesota, Fitzgerald was asked what the team needed to do to be successful in conference play and win the Big Ten championship.
“We need to play a lot cleaner, more focused and more disciplined if we’re going to win another game this year,” Fitzgerald said after the team’s 30-25 victory against Central Michigan on Sept. 25.
Fitzgerald was still preaching those fundamentals on Oct. 23. He said he wasn’t sure what the problem was at the time but vowed to fix it immediately.
“If it’s personnel-based, I’m going to fix it,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to find a way to play with some more discipline.”
The team’s defensive stats are disappointed as the defenders have not been able to stay off the field in the second half in their last two home games.
The rushing defense for the Wildcats in the second half against Purdue gave up 63 yards in the third quarter and 44 yards on the ground in the fourth quarter. The passing defense was the Achilles heel against the Spartans, as it gave up 78 yards through the air in the third quarter and an astonishing 144 yards in the fourth quarter when Michigan State scored 21 points.
In both games,it was plays that gave the opposing team momentum which ultimately derailed the Wildcats.
For Purdue, it was Northwestern’s kicker Stefan Demos’ missed field goal that set up the winning drive for the Boilermakers.
For the Spartans, it was a fake punt attempt on fourth down that turned into a 23-yard pass by Michigan State punter Aaron Bates to Bennie Fowler. Quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a touchdown pass to Mark Dell on the ensuing play.
Northwestern linebacker Bryce McNaul said someone would have to be crazy to think the fake punt wasn’t a momentum swing in the game.
“No doubt it’s a momentum swing,” McNaul said. “We just [have] to be ready to deal with that as a defense.”
The Wildcats’ starting quarterback Dan Persa said the loss to the Spartans was difficult because the team had a 24-14 lead to begin the fourth quarter. He also noted the team was more concerned with the loss and not the previous failure to Purdue.
“We’re worried about this loss, not on anything that happened before,” Persa said.
He noted the team didn’t come out with the same energy as it had in the first half, and it started the second half slow.
What helps an offense sustain drives are first downs, and Purdue and Michigan State were able to get those against the Wildcats in the fourth quarter. The Boilermakers had six first downs, while the Spartans had nine
first downs and converted two fourth downs. The go-ahead touchdown for Michigan State came after a fourth down conversion late in the fourth quarter.
Cousins found Cunningham, who made a spectacular catch as he was falling to the ground in the end zone to put the Spartans up 28-27.
For the Wildcats, they were 1-for-7 on third downs collectively in the fourth quarter of both home games against Purdue and Michigan State. Fitzgerald said he wasn’t worried about the team’s 1-2 start in their first three games of conference play.
“We’ve got more games, just keep playing,” Fitzgerald said. “In this [conference], anybody can win on any given Saturday, so you’ve got to buckle it up and get ready to play for 60 minutes. Until we decide to do that collectively as a program, it’s going to be tough to win.”
The coach also noted the level of talent the Wildcats will be facing, but didn’t hesitate to reflect on the team’s aspirations for itself and what needs to be done to
“There’s [some] great teams [we play] moving forward, but we aspire to be a great team too and we play pretty well,” Fitzgerald said. “We just got to put it all together.”