Two days after one of Northwestern’s ugliest losses in the Pat Fitzgerald coaching era, the Wildcats knew they had to make a change.
So on Monday, following a disheartening 35-6 loss at Wisconsin, the coaching staff made a statement.
Just as players were about to leave a team meeting, the coaches reached into bags filled with about 300 water balloons and started pelting.
“They got after it a little bit,” linebacker and team captain Damien Proby said. “It was pretty unexpected.”
It wasn’t so much about waking up the team — although that might have been part of it — as it was getting across another valuable lesson: Make it fun again. After all, that has long been Northwestern’s mantra, Proby said.
It begins with Saturday’s game against the Gophers.
“We needed it in the sense of just getting back to enjoying the game,” Proby said. “It had gotten to the point where we were more so trying to be perfect on each and every play as opposed to really getting out there and enjoying ourselves in football and enjoying the way we play, together, with your brothers. ... And once you’re out there having fun, you’ll ultimately be more successful.”
On Oct. 5, Northwestern lost a heartbreaker in a much-hyped game against No. 4 Ohio State. A week later, ankle injuries to both quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark during the loss to the Badgers certainly didn’t help the collective mood.
But the Gophers realize that the performance in Madison — 44 rushing yards, 2-for-17 on third downs, seven quarterback sacks allowed — is not indicative of a typical Wildcats showing.
“I’ll tell you, the injuries hurt them,” Gophers defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys said. “Colter got hurt, and Mark got hurt, and it just got them out of sync. Not only that, they got behind, and then they turned into just one-dimensional, throwing it all over, and not only throwing it, throwing it without two of their better athletes, so we haven’t spent a lot of time on Wisconsin game and won’t. That’s not them.”
If Mark and Colter return, the Wildcats will have a much more balanced look. Colter and Trevor Siemian switch off and transform the offense from an efficient air show with Siemian to more of a zone-read game with Colter and Mark.
“It’s frustrating, it’s one more thing to think about,” Gophers defensive back Brock Vereen said. “They’re two different offenses when Colter is in vs. Siemian. But both are very capable of producing great, great drives, so we’ve gotta be ready for both.”
With the pressure and hype of playing Ohio State behind them, and the disappointment of the Wisconsin loss subsequently reawakening the simple thrill of the game, the Wildcats host Minnesota with the idea of getting back to the heart of it.
That is, just having fun.
“I thought the guys had a blast at practice,” Fitzgerald said on Tuesday. “They came ready to work, we improved and for the most part executed pretty well. So they got back on the horse and started to ride today, which is not a surprise.
“They’ll come back and play well, I promise you that.”