Two days later, Pat Fitzgerald was still in a daze. For all that he’s had to deal with since taking over as Northwestern’s head coach in 2006, this was something new.
“I’ll continue to reiterate, ‘Wow,’” the 34-year-old former linebacker said at his weekly press conference.
An understandable reaction. On Saturday, Fitzgerald’s Wildcats pulled off the biggest comeback in program history. Northwestern trailed Indiana 28-3 in the second quarter at Ryan Field before rallying for a 29-28 win.
Stefan Demos’ chip-shot field goal with 21 seconds capped the implausible victory, sending the Wildcats into this weekend’s game against Penn State with plenty of momentum.
Nothing new for Northwestern (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) – since pasting FCS Towson to start the season, the Wildcats’ last seven games have been decided by 11 points or less. Five of those seven have been one-score games.
And the script against Indiana was familiar as well. Facing Purdue at the start of October, Northwestern fell into a 21-3 hole before shutting out the Boilermakers in the second half for a 27-21 triumph.
“It just proves to our young men that when you play the game for 60 minutes, good things can happen,” Fitzgerald said. “Early on (against Indiana) we weren’t executing and we couldn’t get in a rhythm on offense. We really spotted them 21 points. … At a minimum, we gave up 17 but didn’t get off the field and gave up a touchdown to give up 21. Really, we felt like we never got the fight started.
“Once we finally started playing the way we’re capable of, it was a completely different football game. That’s on us as coaches. For the most part, we haven’t started perfect but we’ve at least gone out and started to play. For whatever reason on Saturday we didn’t do that, but we answered the challenge. I know guys are a lot happier winning by one point than the alternative, but we also realize there’s much more that we have to do.”
Pulling off three-score comebacks against a pair of very suspect defenses is one thing, but Penn State leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 8.88 points per game. No other FBS squad is currently holding opponents below 10 ppg heading into this week.
The Nittany Lions defense should be at or near full-strength for the first time since Navorro Bowman was forced to the sideline on the second defensive series of the season.
Northwestern isn’t so fortunate this week.
A talented secondary comes into the game banged up, with top cornerback Sherrick McManis and starting safeties Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips are all battling injuries.
McManis has been playing hurt for most of the season and re-injured a lingering quad muscle against the Hoosiers. Phillips had a shoulder injury and Smith is coming off of surgery on his thumb.
Though all three could start on Saturday, it’s unlikely any will be at 100 percent.
“(McManis) is trying like heck to get healthy, and unfortunately it didn’t respond well in the second half (against Indiana) based on some things that happened in the first half,” Fitzgerald said. “So we hope to have him out there, and it’s been similar the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately on Saturday he wasn’t able to finish the game, where against Michigan State, Miami and Purdue he was able to play. So hopefully it’ll respond through a week of treatment and we’ll have him ready for Saturday.
“Brad came in and played and he’s battling through some injuries himself. Hopefully he’ll be able to continue to do that and continue to play. He ran around great today so I anticipate him playing on Saturday.”
PSU at Northwestern
4:30 p.m., Saturday