LINCOLN — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was joking at his Monday press conference about his fondness each season for the coming of November.
“It’s Halloween time, my wife’s birthday month, my son’s birthday month, four great games (with) two at home,” Fitzgerald said.
And probably most important, Friday will officially put the month of October behind him and his Wildcat football team that has gone from 4-0 to 4-4 in a hurry.
“I’m pretty stoked up about where we’re at right now — from an opportunity standpoint, not about how we’re playing,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities in front of us. We’ve just got to keep playing and keep coaching the guys.”
Northwestern has been left to talk about things such as salvaging a season and bowl eligibility, a far cry from when the Wildcats exited September in the Top 25 and spilling all of their energy into a huge home game with unbeaten Ohio State.
A 40-30 loss to the Buckeyes — in a game the Wildcats led 23-13 in the third quarter — started the current four-game skid that Northwestern will carry into Saturday’s game at Nebraska.
Ever positive, Fitzgerald said Northwestern needs to “use that frustration as fuel,” keep the right attitude and stay the course.
“We got a third of the season left,” Fitzgerald said. “In our place, the sky isn’t falling. It’s sunny out. You just keep grinding, man. That’s what you do. We’ll coach the snot out of the guys this week and get ready to go.”
There might be another reason for optimism with the Wildcats.
Since 2008, Northwestern is 12-6 in November, and its only November loss last year was an overtime setback at Michigan. Plus, five of those 12 wins have come against Top 20 opponents, including when the Wildcats toppled then-No. 9 Nebraska 28-25 in Lincoln in 2011.
By comparison, Northwestern has gone just 3-10 in October over the last three seasons.
“Once any team gets further on into the season they tend to improve with the right coach and the right players, and with the mentality to attack the next week,” Wildcats linebacker Damien Proby said.
What needs to get fixed is the Northwestern offense, which produced just 10 points at Iowa last week after being held to 17 by Minnesota and six by Wisconsin. Injuries to tailback Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter have played a role in some of the inconsistency.
“Offensively it’s kind of a tale of two offenses right now,” Fitzgerald said. “When we’re working, we’re pretty good. And when we have self-inflicted wounds, we’re not very good.
“Six sacks, two fumbles, five penalties (at Iowa) — that’s 13 plays before I even talk about the fundamental issues and technique issues. So we’ve got to get those things eradicated.”
Fitzgerald has been pleased with Northwestern’s effort level defensively, and the Wildcats have forced more turnovers (18) than any other Big Ten team.
If they keep plugging away, Fitzgerald figures eventually the breaks and good bounces will come.
“We’re just fighting right now,” he said. “Fighting and scratching and clawing to win, and that will cure a lot of ills.”