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Fitzgerald: Need for Improvement in All Phases for Northwestern

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

After Northwestern’s defense gave up 596 yards and 41 points to Syracuse, Pat Fitzgerald spend his Monday press conference saying that, in addition to needing improvement, he saw a lot of positives and that he thought the secondary would be alright. This week, after the Wildcats’ dismantling of Vanderbilt, he took away a lot of negatives.

“They played alright,” he said. “I didn’t think we were very good on the perimeter in the run game. We let some balls get outside of us that can never, ever happen. I was not pleased at all with our physicality with our outside backers with the perimeter, and the same thing with our corners.

“We were not very good at all. I thought our defensive line played very well, but in the run game, I thought our secondary, especially our corners and our outside backers, did not play the way that they’re capable of.”

Of course, Fitzgerald’s motto is always “find a way to in,” and NU was able to do that on Saturday. But if they don’t keep improving, the Cats could hit a roadblock, with yet another BCS conference team — Boston College — coming to Evanston this week. Most importantly, Fitzgerald stressed physicality against the Eagles.

“It’s going to be challenge this week by Boston College,” he said. “I guess whatever you’d call a traditional Big Ten, downhill run team — that’s what they used to call the Big Ten — well that’s what Boston College is. They do a great job and those guys are going to be challenged out there.”

But these struggles were expected in the secondary. The struggles in the passing game, however, were not. Despite having one of the most-hyped receiving corps in the Big Ten, the receivers had a number of drops against Vanderbilt, as NU passed for only 133 yards.

“We’ve got to catch the football,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t care where the ball is thrown, that’s what I put them on scholarship for and I reminded them it’s a $60,000 scholarship. Catch the ball. We’ve got a lot of work to do out there. Maybe now they’ll stop reading the paper.”

There weren’t any depth chart changes this week at receiver, but Fitzgerald threatened that there could be in the future if things don’t change.

“Maybe now they’ll just embrace the journey of getting better and being physical like they can be, like they have been,” he said. “We better respond or we’ll keep rolling guys. We’ll find the right combination.”

Saturday’s win was a big one for NU and got the Cats to 2-0 and beyond possibly their toughest hurdle until Nebraska comes to town on Oct. 20 — eight games into the season. However, Fitzgerald said he is being realistic, not pessimistic, in his evaluation of Saturday’s game. If NU is satisfied with that performance, he said, it could experience a letdown.

“We’ve got a lot of room for improvement, that’s my point,” he said. “We are in no way, shape or form what we are capable of being and if you want to be successful as a football program in college, you’ve got to embrace that. You’ve got to embrace the journey of improvement.”

More from Fitz

- Fitzgerald has been very happy with the play of his starting running back: “Right now I think the only guy playing at a championship level on offense is Venric Mark.”

- Chi Chi Ariguzo was the Big Ten defensive player-of-the-week, but NU’s defensive POW was Tyler Scott. Ariguzo was the defensive “big playmaker” of the week along with David Nwabuisi.

- Fitzgerald wasn’t happy with NU’s paly on the perimeter on either side of the ball: “I think in the run game there were some areas we targeted that we were pretty efficient at, and then there were other areas where we weren’t very good at the point of attack, especially with our blocking on the perimeter. I thought we were very average to poor on the perimeter offensively, in both phases — in the run game and the pass game.”

- Nick VanHoose went down with a back injury against Vanderbilt and didn’t return, so Quinn Evans played in his place. Fitzgerald still isn’t certain about VanHoose’s injury, but VanHoose said he “feels great” and Fitzgerald is “hopeful” he will play on Saturday. Due to the uncertainty there, VanHoose and Evans are listed as co-starters in the only depth chart change.