Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald points as he yells to his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against California in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh
September 05, 2014

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Never before has Northwestern been in danger of going 0-2 under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Until now, that is.

The Wildcats will try to avoid making it back-to-back losses to start the season when they host Northern Illinois on Saturday.

''It's a tough pill to swallow to lose a game, but I think our guys are pointing the thumb at each other, really looking inward, looking at their performance and what they could have and would have and should have done,'' Fitzgerald said. ''They didn't do it. I think they will get that fixed. I really do.''

Coming off a 5-7 season and an offseason dominated by union headlines, Northwestern was hoping to start the season on a strong note. Instead, the Wildcats fell 31-24 at home to California last week and dropped the opener for the first time in Fitzgerald's nine seasons.

They trimmed a 24-point deficit to seven and were threatening to score again when Cal's Jalen Jefferson sacked Trevor Siemian and intercepted him on the next play late in the game, sealing the win for the Golden Bears after they went 1-11 a year ago.

So the Wildcats will try to even their record against Northern Illinois.

That's hardly a given considering how successful the Huskies have been in recent years even if they are in transition. They rank second among FBS schools with 47 wins over the past four years after pounding Presbyterian 55-3 in the opener, and they're just two years removed from a run to the Orange Bowl.

They threatened to crash the BCS again last season before losing to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference championship game, but they have a new quarterback with Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch gone. They're somewhat under the radar.

Here are some things to look for in this game:

SIEMIAN STEPS UP: Siemian didn't exactly mince words. He got right to point, instead.

''Not very good,'' he said.

What else could he say about last week's performance? He threw for 229 yards but got picked off twice while throwing for one touchdown. He also caught a 17-yard TD pass off a flea-flicker from Jayme Taylor, but it certainly wasn't the sort of start he had in mind after sharing time with the departed Kain Colter for two years. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game that his quarterback was pressing, squeezing the ball too hard, and Siemian agreed.

''There's a fine line when you want to do your job, and you want to make plays at the same time,'' Siemian said. ''You've just got to stay within yourself and trust yourself and that's one thing that I didn't do very well.''

FIGHTING BACK: One positive that Fitzgerald took was the Wildcats' resolve. They climbed back into the game rather than fold. ''To be down the way we were and see us come back gives me great confidence in what we've got in the fiber of this team,'' Fitzgerald said. ''But we obviously can't do that again and expect to win against good football teams.''

BIG (TEN) SUCCESS: Northern Illinois has fared rather well against the Big Ten in recent years. The Huskies have won four of seven against the conference, recently knocking off Iowa and Purdue. ''I guess we're a little more confident knowing that we've gone into two Big Ten teams in the past year and came out with wins,'' linebacker Michael Santacaterina said. ''But at the same time you still have to do the work during the week, you still have to put in the film time, the practice time and the vibe is just to go over there and take care of business.''

UNDER CENTER: NIU coach Rod Carey said Matt McIntosh will start at quarterback after sharing time with Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie in last week's rout over Presbyterian. McIntosh started the opener and went 10 of 14 for 87 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 27 yards on four carries.

''I think the determining factor was twofold,'' Carey said. ''One, it's time to name the guy and two, Mac had separated himself enough with just how he operated the team that I can give him the nod right now.''

GOOD IMPRESSION: Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson made a good impression in his debut, with 40 yards on eight carries. That included a 7-yard TD run in the third that started the rally. ''I thought he played well in the opener and I think he'll just do nothing but get better,'' Fitzgerald said.

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