If Pat Fitzgerald moped into Saturday’s post-game press conference, sunk back in his chair and fired off glib, empty answers, it would be hard to blame him for it. After all, his team lost another big game against another big opponent by blowing another late lead.
But when Fitzgerald took the podium in Trienens Hall, he was lively, energetic and optimistic. Not the “Oh shucks, we’ll get them next time!” kind of optimism that inspires dreams of brighter days, but the organic and unwavering kind of optimism that makes you think that those brighter days are actually ahead.
There’s no question that what we saw at Ryan Field Saturday was rather disheartening. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian lit up the Ohio State secondary for 343 total yards—wherein Colter connected on all 12 of his pass attempts—and the Northwestern defense held off the powerful combination of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde to get within reach of victory several times.
That said, the Wildcats yet again suffered from the endemic inability to maintain momentum on offense that’s haunted the team since its match up with Syracuse. Against OSU, three straight Northwestern drives in first half ended with field goals in the red zone, and the team’s final six drives consisted of three turnovers, two punts and one touchdown.
That was far from the focus of the postgame press conference. Fitz was met with an onslaught of questions about difficult decisions, game plans and, of course, the disappointing result. The answer to each of those questions was quite similar: We know what we did wrong, but damn, we're proud of what we did right.
“I think we showed everyone in this conference room and the country these young men can play and we just have to coach them better,” he said, deflecting the blame for the poor execution (and that abysmal punt block) onto himself and his staff.
Fitz went on to dispel the notion that this could be a moral victory (“There’s no such thing”), adding that he’s immensely confident in his team’s ability to rebound from the disappointment of losing this game.
“It is about coming back and responding to things when they get tough. It is about sticking together and believing in yourself and each other,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously a disappointed locker room, but [we have] great leadership and we'll bounce back and have a challenge a week from now.”
There are still several kinks that Fitzgerald and his staff need to work out, namely the poor red zone offense and propensity to get bullied by powerful running backs up the middle of the defensive line.
Those same kinks prevented Northwestern from catapulting itself up the AP rankings and erasing any shred of doubt about this team’s capabilities. For Damien Proby, though, this game was never about how others see the Wildcats; it was about how the Wildcats saw themselves.
“We didn't play this game for the media,” Proby told reporters after the game. “We played this game for ourselves and we wanted to prove something to ourselves. That's something we still need to do, but we definitely took a step in the right direction that we wanted to.”
And for a team that’s so intently focused on individual steps forward, playing Ohio State as close as it did might have been just that. In the eyes of the media and reporters, the Wildcats might have stumbled. In their eyes, it was just a trip in the right direction.