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October 19, 2013

Time to panic

EVANSTON-It's not just time to hit the panic button. It's time to hit the darn thing with a sledgehammer.

Just a month after Northwestern beat Maine to improve to 4-0, the wheels have completely fallen off the Wildcats' once high-powered offensive attack. A 20-17 home loss to 12-point underdog Minnesota leaves the Wildcats with a three-game losing streak, an 0-3 record in the Big Ten and many more questions than answers.

After then 16th-ranked Northwestern lost to No. 4 Ohio State on Oct. 5, head coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed relatively satisfied with his team's effort. The difference, he said, was execution.

When Wisconsin beat down the Wildcats 35-6 the following week, Fitzgerald pointed to execution as the culprit again.

Well, now, after a 20-17 loss to Minnesota in which the offense netted just 93 yards rushing, turned the ball over three times and rarely sustained a drive, that line of reasoning just doesn't cut it anymore.

And Fitzgerald seems to agree.

"There's no excuse," he said.

There also doesn't seem to be a good explanation.

When Northwestern played Cal without the services of Kain Colter and Venric Mark, Trevor Siemian played a nearly flawless first half and a solid overall game.

But if you watched Saturday's game, you'd never know this was the same unit that put up 48 points and nearly 600 yards against Syracuse. Siemian played better this week than he did against Wisconsin, but his second-half mistakes likely cost Northwestern the game.

With just over a minute left in the third quarter of 7-7 ball game, Siemian's telegraphed pass on a slant route to Christian Jones resulted in a pick-6 that put Minnesota ahead for good. The Gophers' defensive line and blitzing linebackers got plenty of pressure on the day -- they finished with three sacks and disrupted a number of other plays -- but Siemian had time to set up and throw on that particular play.

It didn't make a difference.

"Obviously the choice to make that throw [wasn't the best]," Fitzgerald said. "I think he'd love to have back."

Even after a Siemian fumble on the next possession led to a Minnesota field goal, however, Fitzgerald said he never thought about taking the quarterback out of the game in favor of Zack Oliver.

Colter, it turned out, was in worse shape than the team let on before the game began. He was supposed to be available in an "emergency" situation, but Fitzgerald said afterward that Colter wasn't medically cleared to play.

The Cats, therefore, were forced to rely on Siemian, who has looked out of sync the last couple weeks. After the quarterback went 25-of-46 for 234 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a fumble, there's little reason to be optimistic about the passing game going forward.

"You can't turn the ball over three times and expect to win many football games," Fitzgerald said.

And there's only so much Fitzgerald can do to help his quarterback.

"I don't have a magic word or phrase or pill to make him feel any better," Fitzgerald said.

Siemian, though, is only part of the problem. The offensive line, dominated all afternoon by a powerful Minnesota defensive line led by the 6-foot-6, 311-pound Ra'Shede Hageman, was just as culpable. The unit failed to pick up many of the Gophers' blitzes and rarely gave Siemian time to throw. Hageman picked off a pass, and four of Siemian's other throws were batted down at the line of scrimmage.

Asked after the game about his feelings regarding the line's performance, Fitzgerald made it clear he wasn't too pleased.

"Well, we're not winning," he said. "So I'm not happy with anybody."

Other than Tony Jones, who caught eight passes for 84 yards and a score, and Stephen Buckley, who led NU with 58 rushing yards and the other TD, there wasn't much to get excited about on the offensive side of the ball.

Northwestern largely abandoned the run in the second half, even though the game was tied until the last two minutes of the third quarter and was a one-score game until just over five minutes remained. Understandably, this leads to questions surrounding the play calling in the second half.

"We've got to continue to look at the things we're doing schematically on offense to give our guys the best chance to succeed," Fitzgerald said.

Despite the curious play calling, Siemian's second straight bad game and a porous offensive line, Northwestern still found itself in the game as the fourth quarter wound down. The Cats' offense finally found a groove as the team moved into a hurry-up offense, and Tony Jones's touchdown grab gave the Cats some life with just over two minutes remaining.

Ultimately, though, it was too little, too late. An onside kick attempt failed to go 10 yards and the defense was unable to stop the Gophers and get the ball back.

And just like that, what had been a promising season just two weeks ago had gone off the rails.

At this point, Northwestern might be lucky to win two more games to become bowl eligible. For the third week in a row, the Cats are left searching for answers.

They had better find some soon.



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