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Northwestern already facing must-win vs. Northern Illinois

“This week practice might be most important for our season” Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian said. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

“This week of practice might be the most important for our season,” Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian said. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

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Updated: October 3, 2014 6:27AM



Northwestern sits in foreign territory. The Wildcats are staring at a Week 2 home game against Northern Illinois and the possibility of being 0-2.

So after their loss to California — the first in nine season openers for coach Pat Fitzgerald — will the Wildcats’ game Saturday define their season?

“No,” Fitzgerald said. “But I bet you that’s a great article.”

Maybe Fitzgerald is looking to take pressure off his players. He also could truly believe early September doesn’t provide that kind of a drama.

Fitzgerald has been coaching for a while now, and he has a growing reputation as a program builder who does it the right way. But there’s no manual that says when big games are played.

Northwestern might not realize that it’s looking at a possible catastrophe if it doesn’t beat the Huskies. A loss would guarantee that the Wildcats enter Big Ten play below .500. They start the conference season at Penn State before hosting Wisconsin. They’ll be underdogs in both games.

That’s a scary thought when you consider what has taken place for the program in the last 10 months.

The Wildcats were the sexy pick to win the Big Ten in 2013 after coming off their first bowl victory since 1948. Four games into the season, Northwestern was undefeated before losing at home to Ohio State in October, the first of seven consecutive losses.

Missing out on the bowl season was supposed to be rock bottom. But then the school found itself on the defensive against the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board in February. During training camp in August, the Wildcats announced a two-game suspension for top running back Venric Mark.

One day after Mark addressed the media in a full show of support for his team, he elected to transfer. On the same day, Northwestern lost its best receiver, Christian Jones, for the year because of a knee injury.

Fast forward to this past Saturday, when the Wildcats lost to a Cal team that went 0-11 against FBS opponents in 2013. A victory over Northern Illinois certainly would get the Wildcats back on course.

“Guys just maybe have a different chip on their shoulder,” quarterback Trevor Siemian said. “Even coming in this morning to watch the [Cal] game film, and I was ready to burn it.”

On Monday, the Wildcats looked to be taking the Jordan Lynch-less Huskies very seriously.

Northern Illinois might have lost its Heisman finalist to graduation, but the Huskies’ offense returns plenty from a year ago. That figures to make for a shootout Saturday.

Siemian and Co. need a quick turnaround after looking out of sync against Cal.

“This week of practice might be the most important week of practice for our season,” Siemian said. “Because first and second week, that’s where you see the most improvement in teams usually.”

The Wildcats desperately need to improve to salvage the season.

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen



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