By Andrew Seligman
AP Sports Writer
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Reeling after back-to-back losses, Northwestern players got hit with a big surprise this week.
Water balloons. About 300, actually.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald wanted to lighten the mood so he played a prank on his team at a meeting as the players started to prepare for Saturday’s game against Minnesota.
“You’ve got to have fun when you’re doing this, and obviously nobody enjoys not being successful,” Fitzgerald said. “But I think the hallmark of this squad has been our character and the way that we’ve responded. I talked to them about the glue that keeps everything together is having fun and enjoying the moment and the opportunities.”
Northwestern had chances the past two weeks to show it could beat the best in the Big Ten. It didn’t happen.
The Wildcats (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) blew a 10-point lead in the third quarter on the way to a 40-30 loss to Ohio State and got shredded 35-6 at Wisconsin last week. They gave up seven sacks, and a game that started as a defensive struggle degenerated into a blowout.
Kain Colter, the do-it-all-quarterback, ran for just 10 yards and threw for 34 with an interception. Trevor Siemian was 13 for 34 for 163 yards, and the Wildcats were just 2 of 17 on third downs.
Worse, running back Venric Mark, who had just returned the previous week from an injury, got knocked out in the first half with an ankle injury. Colter also injured his ankle in the first half, and both players are questionable for this game.
Minnesota (4-2, 0-2) is expected to be missing a key figure again, with coach Jerry Kill on a leave of absence due to his epilepsy.
He’s had five seizures on game days in two-plus seasons as the Golden Gophers’ coach, and he missed the most recent game, a loss at Michigan two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys filled in, and the school announced last week that Kill was taking a leave to address his seizures.
“He does know that if a situation comes up and we need his advice, I won’t hesitate to call him,” Claeys said. “But for the most part, whatever advice he wants to give and that’s what we’ll do.”
For now, Claeys is in charge.
Here are five things to know as Northwestern and Minnesota try to shake off back-to-back losses:
CLAEYS ON SIDELINE: Claeys has done his defensive coordinating from the booth and rarely spends time on the sideline, even in those instances in the past when Kill left a game early because of a seizure. But now that he is leading the way, Claeys plans to do his coaching from the sideline so he can be closer to the players. “The hardest part of that when you’re on the boundary and you’re the D-coordinator is you try to correct mistakes in between plays,” he said. “In a no-huddle situation you don’t have time to do that. I’m going to have to stay pretty disciplined in letting the other guys coach so we can get the play call in.”
WHAT A STEAL: Tops in the Big Ten and fifth nationally with 17 takeaways, Northwestern certainly is doing a good job forcing turnovers. The have already matched their total for last season with 13 interceptions. The question is: If they get the takeaways, will they make Minnesota pay? The Wildcats had three last week but couldn’t turn them into enough points against the Badgers.
QUARTERBACK CAROUSEL: The Gophers have had a bit of a revolving door at quarterback through the first six games. Philip Nelson was the starter to begin the season, but went down with a hamstring injury against Western Illinois on Sept. 14. That opened the door for Mitch Leidner, who played well the following week against San Jose State. But Kill chose to start Nelson against Iowa in the Big Ten opener, and he struggled mightily. Leidner started against Michigan and will start again against the Wildcats. Leidner was 14 for 21 for 145 with a TD against Michigan, but still turned the ball over twice.
GOING DOWN: Fitzgerald called the Wildcats’ performance against Wisconsin an “anomaly.” But in one area, it wasn’t — sacks. The Badgers had seven last week, bringing the total for Northwestern opponents to a league-leading 19. Some of the blame goes to the offensive line, but Colter and Trevor Siemian rarely throw the ball away.
DOWN TO THE WIRE: Minnesota and Northwestern have played some tight games in recent years. In 2007, the Wildcats stopped a two-point conversion by the Gophers to win 49-48 in overtime after rallying from a 35-14 second-half deficit. The following year, Northwestern’s Brendan Smith returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown on the final play to break a 17-17 tie. And in 2010, Stefan Demos kicked a go-ahead field goal with 2:07 left and Ben Johnson sealed the 29-28 win with a late interception.