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Published: Tuesday, 11/12/2013

UM just the latest challenge for Wildcats

BY RACHEL LENZI
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald looks at his team’s proverbial glass as half full.

Despite its winless Big Ten conference record. Despite injuries that have limited quarterback Kain Colter and sidelined running back and punt returner Venric Mark, two of the Wildcats’ marquee players. Despite the handful of plays that he says separates his team from being among the conference’s contenders.

Fitzgerald believes the Wildcats still have something to play for, despite the fact that his team hasn’t won a game in nearly eight weeks.

“Morale’s high at our place,” said Fitzgerald, whose team hosts Michigan at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Evanston, Ill. “Our guys have battled every game. Games have come down to the wire.

“This year, we’re fighting a little bit adversity, but morale is high and the guys understand we’ve got a lot to play for in the last three weeks of the season.”

In August, many circled this weekend’s Michigan-Northwestern game at Ryan Stadium as a game that would decide the winner of the Legends Division. Michigan entered the season with sky-high expectations, while many regarded Northwestern as the conference’s upstart program.

Now, forget the idea of a division title for either team. Both the Wildcats (4-5, 0-5 Big Ten) and the Wolverines (6-3, 2-3) need a win.

Incredibly, the Wildcats enter Saturday’s game as the favorite against Michigan, which has lost three of its last four games and has yet to produce positive rushing yardage in November.

“Their kids are disciplined and play with a toughness to them,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said of Northwestern. “They’re going to be a little rested up [after a bye week] and this is something you look forward to in a team. You look at their game and how they’ve played, and their record could be much different in a real hurry, if the ball bounces a different way.

“We’re going to have our hands full.”

It’s high praise for a team whose last win came Sept. 21 against Maine, a team that’s sixth in the FCS coaches Poll.

Two situations, in particular, have summed up Northwestern’s shortcomings this fall.

The Wildcats had their best chance at legitimizing themselves in early October when they hosted Ohio State — and led 30-27 with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Four minutes later, Carlos Hyde’s 7-yard touchdown run gave the lead back to the Buckeyes, who ultimately handed the Wildcats their first Big Ten loss.

That began the tailspin.

Northwestern lost its next four games and last weekend at Nebraska, the Wildcats led the Huskers 24-21 with 80 seconds left … until Ron Kellogg III’s Hail Mary pass tipped off the hands of a Northwestern defender and into the hands of Jordan Westerkamp in the end zone as time expired. Nebraska handed Northwestern its fifth straight loss.

“A year ago, those balls bounced our way,” Fitzgerald said.

If his team — the Vegas favorite by three points — can beat the Wolverines, it could be a step in salvaging Northwestern’s season.

Contact Rachel Lenzi at: rlenzi@theblade.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.



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