Northwestern players were reminded Monday there is still time for the Wildcats to make a splash in the Big Ten race.
Coaches surprised players when they arrived for practice by pelting them with more than 300 water balloons, a move designed to ease the pressure following tough losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin to open the Big Ten season.
On the heels of a 4-0 start, the Wildcats followed a tight 40-30 loss to the Buckeyes by getting overwhelmed 35-6 last Saturday at Wisconsin.
“I don’t know if I would label where we are at a roller-coaster start, we just didn’t play well last week,’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to execute more cleanly and more consistently. Things didn’t go the way we anticipated, but when that happens, you analyze where you are at and then try to get back on the horse.’’
That analysis led Fitzgerald to a hypothesis that the Wildcats must play more physical football than they did against the Badgers and find ways to gain consistency that has been lacking at times in recent games, particularly from the front seven on what has been an opportunistic defense.
He believes the Wildcats have the personnel to make that happen, but improved health would be a benefit.
Quarterback/receiver Kain Colter and all-American return specialist/running back Venric Mark have dealt with injuries in recent weeks and both missed early-week practice time as Northwestern began preparations for Saturday’s game with Minnesota.
Even coming off the loss to the Buckeyes — a game that was 34-30 before OSU scored as time expired — Fitzgerald said the Wildcats’ performance at Wisconsin caught him by surprise.
“In the days leading up to the game, in pregame warm-ups, there was no indication that something like that would happen,’’ Fitzgerald said. “Something happened in 20 minutes in the locker room that we haven’t seen around here in a long time. Sometimes, you just don’t have your ‘A’ game with you. Now, we’ll see how we respond.’’
ANOTHER LOOK: After watching running backs total 28 yards on 30 carries in its four-overtime loss Saturday at Penn State, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Wolverines coaches are taking another look at offensive personnel.
“We’ve got to address not being able to run the ball from the tailback position,’’ Hoke said. “We’re not letting Fitz (Toussaint) get started and that starts up front. We’ll look at personnel, look at everything.’’
Quarterback Devin Gardner is currently Michigan’s leading rusher. He carried 24 times for 121 yards against the Nittany Lions, but that is not how Hoke wants the Wolverines’ offense to work.
“We can’t ask him to run that many times in the Big Ten or he’ll get beat up and we won’t have him for the heart of the Big Ten season,’’ Hoke said. “We’ve got to do better.’’
Toussaint is averaging 3.4 yards per carry, while freshman Derrick Green averages 3.2 yards per rush for Michigan.
LONG GONE: Nebraska will play the rest of the season without all-American guard Spencer Long, who will undergo surgery today to repair an injured left knee.
Coach Bo Pelini said the injury suffered early in last week’s win at Purdue was less severe than initially thought, but will still sideline him for the remainder of the season.
The return of senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who has not played since a Sept. 14 loss to UCLA because of a turf toe injury, remains a question for the Cornhuskers as well.
“He is getting better, but he won’t be back until he push off of it and go,’’ Pelini said. “When he’s ready, you will see him out there. He’s frustrated and he’s dealing with it. He can go forward, but he can’t push off of it just yet. Hopefully, he’ll turn the corner soon.’’
TRADING PLACES: Purdue visits Michigan State on Saturday, following a path already traveled by Spartans offensive coordinator Jim Bollman.
The veteran assistant left Boston College in January to work as the offensive line coach for first-year Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. A month later he left the Boilermakers to join the Michigan State staff after Clinton native Dan Roushar left the Spartans for a spot on the New Orleans Saints staff in the NFL.
Hazell said there were no hard feelings.
“Jim and I have a great relationship. He’s a great man of faith and I understood his decision. He and Mark Dantonio have worked three jobs together and their wives are best friends,’’ Hazell said. “We move on.’’
UNDERSTANDING WORD: Juggling his own quarterbacks, Indiana coach Kevin Wilson spent a minute talking with Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell following the Hoosiers’ loss at Spartan Stadium last weekend.
“He was beaten out for their starter’s job and from my perspective, he’s handled things well. I wanted to share a quick word or two of encouragement with him,’’ Wilson said. “He’s a good kid, a good player.’’