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Northwestern coaches in question after decisions in defeat

Northwestern quarterback KaColter takes hit from Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun. | Andrew A. Nelles/AP

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter takes a hit from Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun. | Andrew A. Nelles/AP

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Michigan St. 0 14 9 7 — 30

Northwestern 3 3 0 0 — 6

First Quarter

NU—FG Budzien 22, 7:55.

Second Quarter

MSU—Langford 20 run (Geiger kick), 8:22.

MSU—Fowler 87 pass from Cook (Geiger kick), 4:31.

NU—FG Budzien 20, 1:52.

Third Quarter

MSU—FG Geiger 37, 11:33.

MSU—Price 15 pass from Cook (kick blocked), 5:00.

Fourth Quarter

MSU—Langford 37 run (Geiger kick), 12:37.

A—40,013.

TEAM STATISTICS MSU NU

First downs 20 19

Rushes-yards 40-171 26-80

Passing 293 239

Comp-Att-Int 16-24-0 27-46-3

Return Yards 34 9

Punts-Avg. 5-41.2 5-36.8

Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0

Penalties-Yards 4-30 2-15

Time of Possession 31:39 28:21

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING—Michigan St., Langford 25-150, Hill 6-34, D.Williams 2-6, Shelton 1-1, Burbridge 1-(minus 5), Team 3-(minus 6), Cook 2-(minus 9). Northwestern, Siemian 4-28, Green 11-25, Trumpy 8-17, Vitale 1-8, Colter 2-2.

PASSING—Michigan St., Cook 16-24-0-293. Northwestern, Siemian 25-43-2-227, Colter 2-2-0-12, Z.Oliver 0-1-1-0.

RECEIVING—Michigan St., Lippett 3-64, Price 3-35, Fowler 2-99, Langford 2-35, Burbridge 2-22, Kings 2-16, Mumphery 1-20, Gleichert 1-2. Northwestern, T.Jones 7-59, Vitale 5-58, Lawrence 4-18, C.Jones 3-43, Trumpy 3-15, Green 2-13, Dickerson 1-18, Jensen 1-15, K.Prater 1-0.

Updated: December 25, 2013 6:46AM



Pat Fitzgerald is unyieldingly loyal. Rarely, if ever, will he place blame on another player or coach. He almost always will assume responsibility when Northwestern struggles.

He wasn’t much different after the Wildcats’ 30-6 loss to Michigan State on Saturday, which dashed their bowl hopes.

But in defending what has been conservative play-calling this season, Fitzgerald’s comments indicated he and his staff might not be on the same page.

Three times Northwestern punted inside Michigan State territory, and each ensuing drive resulted in a Spartans touchdown. Fitzgerald clearly wanted to go for it before one of the punts, but he couldn’t because the staff didn’t have a play ready that would handle the Spartans’ pressure.

After a third-and-six on the Spartans’ 37-yard line in the second quarter, quarterback Trevor Siemian was forced to throw early after the Wildcats failed to pick up a blitz.

Too close to the end zone to punt yet too far to kick a field goal, any coach would favor going for it. Knowing the Spartans would bring the same pressure, Fitzgerald called a timeout and talked with his staff.

“It’s a pretty simple question,” Fitzgerald said. “You guys feel great about picking it up?”

Fitzgerald didn’t explicitly say the answer was “no,” but it was presumed with his response thereafter.

“OK, let’s punt it,” Fitzgerald said. “That was the answer. My answer was that. We worked together, and we made a decision collectively.”

A staff deserves criticism when it’s unprepared for such a situation, and Fitzgerald has unfairly assumed that criticism.

Fitzgerald and his staff have had success at Northwestern. They shouldn’t be overwhelmingly criticized. Nor should they be celebrated, not after such a disappointing 2013 season.

It’s just one play in a blowout, but it’s a microcosm of a season that has come down to critical plays and critical decisions. Did they make the right call when Nebraska converted a fourth-and-15, which preceded the game-winning “Hail Mary”?

Was it the right call to put Kain Colter under center — a formation he rarely practices — on a critical fourth-and-one against Ohio State? Colter fumbled and failed to get the first down.

That essentially cost the Wildcats the first game in their seven-game losing streak. Now bowl-ineligible, Northwestern’s players can’t help but wonder what might have been had they beaten the Buckeyes.

“We talk about that all the time in the locker room,” defensive end Tyler Scott said. “You never know. We’ve been in so many games so close. It’s just a play here, a play there. We have had multiple opportunities to change this streak.”

Saturday doesn’t give reason to insinuate the staff was unprepared in every dubious situation. But it does raise the question.

At least it absolves Fitzgerald of the overwhelming criticism he has shouldered this season.

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen



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