Northwestern visits Michigan State with host of issues

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Wide receiver Austin Carr, left, of the Northwestern Wildcats celebrates with split back Garrett Dickerson after a touchdown in the third quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Oct. 1 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Heading into Saturday’s Northwestern-Michigan State game, it would be easy to draw quite a few parallels between the teams.

Both are 2-3 overall, a disappointment in both East Lansing and Evanston, Illinois. Michigan State entered this season coming off an appearance in the College Football Playoffs, and Northwestern won 10 games, with designs on competing for the Big Ten West Division title.

While things have gone south for the Spartans the past three weeks, it was an abysmal start to the season the Wildcats are trying to overcome. Northwestern lost its first two at home — to a Western Michigan team ranked No. 24 in this week’s Top 25, and to Illinois State of the Football Championship Subdivision.

Win No. 1 for Northwestern came in the third week at home against Duke, followed by a loss to Nebraska. Two weeks ago, Northwestern got back on track with a road upset of Iowa before a bye.

The week off was a chance for coach Pat Fitzgerald to work his team hard.

“It’s important that we improve,” Fitzgerald said. “We have been inconsistent, and that is on me. Hopefully we made some adjustments from that standpoint through the bye week. We worked hard. It was not Kumbaya and roasting marshmallows at practice. Hopefully the guys bring it this week.”

There was plenty to work on for Northwestern. In fact, Fitzgerald had a hard time narrowing the problems down.

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“Every area,” he emphasized Monday. “Punt coverage, kick coverage return, offensive line fundamentals, defensive line gap integrity, fending off blockers with our hands, linebackers have the proper fit, open-field tackling, defensive backs with their eye control, the time and ball placement at the quarterback position. Want me to keep going?”

Needless to say, the Wildcats have plenty to fix. But they at least have something the Spartans don’t — a bit of momentum coming off the victory over the Hawkeyes, not to mention some success at Spartan Stadium.

Northwestern’s last three wins in the series (2005, 2007, 2012) have been in East Lansing. Fitzgerald believes that’s mostly coincidence and thinks the Michigan State team he’ll see Saturday is better than its record. It has, however, suffered from many of the same issues as Northwestern — dropped passes, missed throws, missed tackles, to name a few.

“When you look at it on tape, they could have won every game,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve had a couple of games where teams played really clean against us and not made a single mistake and they’ve had the same thing happen to them here the last few weeks where teams haven’t made a lot of mistakes.

“But they’ve played relentless, they’ve played hard," he continued. "They’ve played very physical, just ended up on the short end against some good teams. This is a team that’s won Big Ten championships, they know how to win, they play well at home and it will be a huge challenge for us. This is one of the more talented teams in the Big Ten, if not the most talented team sitting up there with Ohio State and Michigan.”

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So, Fitzgerald isn’t spending a lot of time worrying this week about Michigan State. Instead, his focus is on getting his players to improve. Through five games, the Wildcats rank near the bottom in most offensive categories with a defense that’s keeping them in games.

“I know who we are, which is not very mature and a group that needs to be led by the coaches,” he said. “We’ve got some, I wouldn’t say emergency, but we’re doing surgery on this team right now. We’re not where we need to be and that is on me.”