Northwestern lost more than its starting quarterback and its final three games down the stretch of last season.
According to coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats also lost their edge. After improving to 7-3 with a dramatic win against Iowa, Northwestern dropped its final three games by a combined margin of 163-88.
From the Daily Herald's Lindsey Willhite:
“My utmost concern is getting our attitude back,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s the area where I feel I failed the most last year. We lost our attitude and we turned the ball over 10 times in our last two regular-season games. You can’t do that and win."
How will Fitzgerald rectify the situation this spring? Competition.
This isn't exactly a novel concept, as every Big Ten team will have its share of position battles when spring ball kicks off next month. But Fitzgerald isn't confining the competition to a few spots on the depth chart.
Everyone -- players, coaches, maybe even water gatherers -- has something at stake.
“I made sure it was crystal-clear,” Fitzgerald said. “My point was to the team, based on the way we played our last three ballgames, why should anybody feel -- myself included -- that our jobs are in a good place right now? There needs to be a sense of urgency for all of us to improve and to fix our attitude. That’s what we lost: Our attitude.”
Fitzgerald has had some strong words for his team ever since it fell to Texas Tech in the Dallas Football Classic. He challenged the team's juniors immediately after the game, saying, "That class has got to step up. They've got to start making more plays, they've got to start leading. They've got to be the catalyst for us to go where we want to go."
Should Dan Persa worry about regaining his job when he returns from a ruptured Achilles'? Probably not. Should multiyear starters like cornerback Jordan Mabin, left tackle Al Netter, center Ben Burkett and defensive end Vince Browne get concerned? Probably not.
But everyone is being put on notice. It's probably a good thing for a defense that crumbled following Persa's injury. Northwestern needs to tackle much better in the front seven and do a better job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The defense finished the season looking more like the dreadful products of the mid-2000s than the improved one in 2008.
The competition also should help the offensive line, a group boasting a ton of combined starts, but also a ton of inconsistent play. There's no reason why Northwestern shouldn't be rock solid up front in 2011.
The positions likely to feature the most competition this spring include: cornerback (opposite Mabin), linebacker, defensive tackle, running back, offensive line and kicker.
Should be an interesting spring in Evanston.