For both teams, the momentum's gone.
After Saturday, one will lose it permanently.
Northwestern faces the true "must-win" game this weekend. After an excellent showing against Ohio State, the Wildcats labored through a 29-point loss at Wisconsin—killing their lofty expectations.
To rekindle those OSU rematch hopes, NU likely needs to win the next three games. The process begins when Minnesota arrives in town one year after the teams' most recent matchup, when NU emerged with a difficult 21-13 road win.
It's been an interesting week of preparation for Pat Fitzgerald and his team, beginning with 300 water balloons and ending with some uncertain injury status. Still, "1-0 each week" has never felt this applicable. Focused throughout practice, the Wildcats are hours from another opportunity to fulfill their promise.
On the dormant running backs
PurpleWildcats.com writer Steven Goldstein spoke with running back Treyvon Green on Wednesday, searching for the tough answers everyone desired. After the team averaged 1.8 yards per carry on Saturday, Green said he didn't know why NU abandoned the running game. It translated to early desperation mode for the ‘Cats, who struggled to move the ball against an underrated Wisconsin defense.
With Mark hobbled, this time due to an ankle injury, offensive coordinator Mick McCall needs to effectively incorporate multiple running backs. Green admitted what we all saw: He personally lacked his characteristic "punch." Though he found success filling in for Mark during September, it'll take a collective effort against the Gophers' stout front seven.
Our entire staff expects an impressive game for Stephen Buckley—an able receiver out of the backfield. Following his strong fall camp, Buckley became the fourth option on this loaded running back depth chart. He's made only four catches; that number could double on Saturday. The Wildcats focused on Buckley throughout practice, with the redshirt freshman taking sets of first-team reps. Venric Mark's status is generally viewed as uncertain, making the guys behind him crucial to the team's success this weekend.
On the receiver struggles
When the season began, it appeared as though Tony Jones emerged as NU's elite receiver. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall returned to the midrange passing game with some success—focusing on Jones in particular.
But since then, the Wildcats' standard receiver-by-committee approach came into view. After catching only three passes in the first month, Rashad Lawrence combined for 12 in the past two weeks—including impressive vertical grabs in both. Nothing changed in his approach, Lawrence told PurpleWildcats.com this week, but the opportunities suddenly arrived.
Lawrence said the unit has to improve this week, which certainly makes sense. There were several inexcusable drops (Fitzgerald stopped counting after one), and that disrupted Trevor Siemian's rhythm. Perhaps coming out "flat"–as described by some players–stemmed from the mediocre play at wideout. With Trevor Siemian likely under center for the majority of Saturday's game, expect better effort now.
On Colter and Mark
Both Kain Colter and Venric Mark were listed as questionable in this week's injury report. PurpleWildcats.com learned that neither practiced on Thursday—with their status squarely in doubt for the Minnesota game.
Mark's "lower-body" injuries continue to pile up. After missing the majority of September with a hamstring setback, Mark suffered from ankle problems at Wisconsin. It's an unfortunate way to spend his senior year, and with NU already facing an 0-2 Big Ten record, the team needs its All-American to come back at full strength.
Colter encountered similar problems. He left the Cal game with a concussion, and limited mobility held him out of practice. I'm not ruling anything out, yet, but NU might need to prepare for the worst: No Colter or Mark. That's tough to accept.
On team mentality
"It was to kick their ass," Pat Fitzgerald said after dousing his players with 300 water balloons on Monday morning. "At the end of the day, what we did on Saturday is completely and totally unacceptable. So it was a wake-up statement to say: ‘have some frickin' fun.'"
They came out "flat" against Wisconsin, and players admitted as much. The hype gradually evaporated during one of the team's most disappointing games in recent memory. Now, it's a sort of statement game despite the weaker opponent. NU wants to regain its characteristic mentality, so badly missing one week earlier.
The practices turned out well. Fitzgerald is usually honest about the team's performance during drills. They left no questions unanswered: NU players are prepared to make the fan base forget about last week's debacle.
The normally reserved Tyler Scott even offered this: "We didn't come out with the right passion… Attitude's a choice. It wasn't who we were, and after today's [Tuesday] practice, we have a sense of urgency once again." It arrives just in time. We're sure that any Pat Fitzgerald team can rebound mentally.
On stopping the run game
Sean McEvilly will not play against Minnesota. He shed the boot by Wednesday's practice, but there's no reason to rush the starting defensive tackle back from his foot injury.
(PurpleWildcats.com regrets last week's report, in which a typically reliable source called his return for this week "likely." Next week would mark a reasonable timetable for his return.)
Despite Chance Carter's strong performance last week, NU will need another strong effort to slow Minnesota's run game.
"Looked like (the Badgers') power football worked really good against them," Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams told Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press. "That's we want to be about. That's what we want to do."
Tommy Fuessel has become a beloved member of this NU team. The former high-school quarterback moved to wide receiver and found immediate success. Early in fall camp, Christian Jones praised Fuessel for his hard-nosed play and attitude. The freshman earned scout team practice honors this past week; he'll be an impact player in the long run.
Superback Dan Vitale had another quiet game against Wisconsin. Ever since his 100-yard outburst in the opening week, he's struggled to become the impact receiver we envisioned. Watch for him to regain form this weekend.
Stay tuned to PurpleWildcats.com for coverage of this weekend's game against Minnesota.