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November 11, 2013

First look: Northwestern recovering mentally and physically

Northwestern's four-game losing streak was over. The Wildcats were ready to rejoice in a hard-fought win over Nebraska in Lincoln. Then, like last year's Michigan game, NU snatched defeat from the claws of victory, allowing a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown as the game clock expired.

"Honestly, I just -- there are no words to describe it, honestly," tailback Treyvon Green said. "It happened so fast, and you'd think that'd be the last thing to happen on that play."

Northwestern's season went from bad to worse with the loss to the Cornhuskers, and the Wildcats will now enter Saturday 0-5 in the Big Ten, 4-5 overall and in very real risk of missing a bowl game after starting 4-0 and ranked No. 16 nationally.

That's when the season went downhill. NU entertained Ohio State for a much-ballyhooed night game, and led 30-27 until a fourth-quarter collapse. Proving they had not recovered emotionally from the devastating setback, the Purple and White failed to show up against Wisconsin and were run over, 35-6.

It didn't get much better, when it should have, as Northwestern fell to Minnesota (20-17) and Iowa (17-10). And just when they thought they couldn't sink any further into despair, the Wildcats saw Ron Kellogg III's 49-yard heave end up in the hands of receiver Jordan Westerkamp.

"Maybe I should have done something differently," said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "It's a tough deal. I feel for our guys."

Northwestern had a bye to restore its confidence, but its far bigger need during the break was to restore its roster. Had the Purple and White been forced to play last Saturday, 13 key players would have missed due to injury while another seven would have been limited and would have been listed as questionable.

"If we didn't have bad luck, we wouldn't have any luck at all," said Fitzgerald. "That's just the way it is. It's the cards we've gotten dealt.

"That's probably what I'm most proud of in the team right now, the toughness they've shown. It's been a hard month from a health standpoint. But, man, we battled our fannies off and to see this kind of toughness, it's something we take great pride in. And the credit all goes to the guys.

"For us it's kind of been a reoccurring theme since we started Big Ten play. It seems like we're losing two, three, four guys each week. But it is what it is. There's not a whole lot we can do. You've got to keep trudging on. Next man up mentality, that's all you can do."

The good news is that NU did heal up. In fact, Fitzgerald described the bye week as "mission accomplished," listing only three players that were still day-to-day, with the exception of tailback Venric Mark. The senior suffered a fractured ankle against the Badgers in week six and will not return this year.

"We're disappointed for him first and foremost, and obviously for the team," Fitzgerald said. "It's not that the injury has gotten worse, it just hasn't gotten better.

"We'll look at a medical hardship for him at the end of the year. And we're looking forward to him getting better."

Mark's injury has stymied the Wildcats considerably this season, but Northwestern has moved on without him and will continue to do so.

More than anything, NU just needs a win. To put an end to its losing streak. To salvage the season.


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