Fitzgerald: No time to panic with Wildcats 0-2

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Northwestern vowed this would be a rebound season, a chance to re-establish itself after struggling down the stretch last year.

Two games in, things aren't looking so good.

The Wildcats take a 0-2 record into Saturday's meeting with Western Illinois, certainly not what they expected headed into their final tuneup for Big Ten play.

''We've lost two games by one score,'' coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ''I know there's people jumping off the boat, but it's not on fire. So chill out. But at the same time, we've got to win games.''

The roster took several big hits before the start of the season, with running back Venric Mark getting suspended for the first two games and then transferring. Receiver Christian Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason practice, and things just haven't gone the Wildcats' way since then.

Northwestern opened with a 31-24 loss to California, coming up short after a second-half rally.

The result was no better the following week against Northern Illinois. The Wildcats dropped that game 23-15 despite racking up 394 yards on offense. The problem was drives kept getting stalled by mistakes, be it a dropped pass, penalty or sack.

It didn't help, either, that quarterback Trevor Siemian left the game with an injury to his lower right leg, although he has said it wasn't too serious. Defensive lineman C.J. Robbins also got ejected in the fourth quarter and was suspended for this week's game by the Big Ten. The conference issued a public reprimand of him.

It has all added up to the worst start in Fitzgerald's nine seasons, certainly not what the Wildcats were planning after going 5-7. They've dropped nine of 10 since winning the first four a year ago. And after a week off, they have one final tuneup before opening conference play at Penn State.

With that in mind, here are some things to look for as the Wildcats take on Western Illinois (2-1).

TAKE IT AWAY: Fitzgerald came into this season harping on takeaways after an uneven performance by the Wildcats in that area last season. They led the conference with 19 interceptions but tied for a league low with four fumble recoveries.

And now?

The tally so far is two interceptions, zero fumble recoveries.

''We haven't been very successful around here when we don't create turnovers,'' Fitzgerald said. ''It's kind of a recipe for disaster.''

GETTING IN GEAR: Takeaways aren't the only issue at the moment for Northwestern. There are a few on offense, too.

The Wildcats are averaging 19.5 points, 2.5 yards per rush and 374 yards, and that's turned some attention toward Trevor Siemian.

With Kain Colter gone, the Wildcats don't have a running quarterback. But Fitzgerald said this week he's not considering going back to a two-man rotation at QB. He also pointed out that Northwestern's offense has succeeded in the past without a running quarterback.

RUN FOR IT: The losses of Colter and Mark help explain the low rushing numbers to some extent. One bright spot - Justin Jackson.

A true freshman, he has carried 20 times for a team-high 92 yards and is averaging 4.6 per carry.

He figures to be tested by a team that held one of the nation's top running backs - Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon - to 38 yards two weeks ago.

ABOUT WESTERN ILLINOIS: Western Illinois lost 37-3 to Wisconsin two weeks ago after hanging in for two quarters. The Fighting Leathernecks trailed by six at halftime before Badgers quarterback Tanner McEvoy took over, shaking off a slow start to throw for three touchdowns and run for another.

Against Drake last week, Trenton Norvell threw for 205 yards and J.C. Baker ran for 130 in a 38-13 victory. The Leathernecks also registered seven sacks, the most for them since 2002.

CATCHING `CATS: The Wildcats are missing their top two receivers from last year, with Christian Jones out for the season and Tony Jones (lower body injury) missing his second straight game. Senior Kyle Prater helped fill the void against Northern Illinois, recording career highs with seven catches and 87 yards.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.