Northwestern's finale latest uninspired loss

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald summed up Saturday's loss to Michigan State, and his season, all in the same sound bite Saturday afternoon.

"The little details today is what hurt us," the frustrated coach said after his team dropped its sixth game of the season, 31-17.

It was the same old story for Fitzgerald's team on a dark and dreary day at Ryan Field. The Wildcats had plenty of chances to win the game, they just couldn't make a play when they needed one most.

"If it's getting a punt closer to the boundary. If it's taking care of the football in the red zone. If it's protection communication. If it's a post player staying in the post," Fitzgerald said. "All those little things add up to success, and, unfortunately, momentary failure."

Yet again, Northwestern found ways to lose a game instead finding ways to win it. Yet again, the Wildcats had a chance to knock off a ranked opponent at home and improve their bowl options, but they didn't.

"It was the tale of two seasons if I've ever seen it," senior linebacker Bryce McNaul said.

More like a tale of two teams. Some weeks the Wildcats would look like they had pieced it all together and played with the consistent passion that Fitzgerald is always preaching about. Some weeks they would make the kind of head scratching plays that left Fitzgerald shaking his head, like the one on Saturday right before halftime when the Wildcats allowed Keshawn Martin to run a punt back 57 yards into the end zone, giving the Spartans a 17-3 lead.

The reality, as much as Fitzgerald and his players didn't want to face it, is that Northwestern underachieved this season given all the expectations it had before the year began.

"Other people's expectations out the door, we expect a lot from ourselves," McNaul said. "I know I could probably speak for a lot of my teammates, not just in the senior class, [that] when I decided to come to Northwestern, it was to win a Big Ten championship. So it was incumbent on us as seniors to lead this team, to put ourselves in a position to do that."

They didn't. Not on Saturday and definitely not during a majority of the regular season in which they finished 6-6 as they now await a bowl invitation.

"The games that we lost were because of little fundamental things," senior quarterback Dan Persa said. "It wasn't us getting blown out of the barn or anything like that. It was little concepts that we need to work on, little fundamentals that we got lenient on and it cost us."

Fitzgerald vowed that those mistakes would get cleaned up before any bowl game.

"I can't stand it," he said. "It drives me crazy. It drives me up the wall not to be on the successful end. I expect to win. I expect to win everything that we do. And not to [win] six times this year is disappointing.

"You just keep fighting and believing in what you believe in. You look at all these games that we've ended up on the short end, we could have won all six of those football games. So that's incredibly motivating, incredibly motivating, but we didn't. So what are we going to do about it? Contrary to popular belief, we don't have a pity party. We don't feel sorry for ourselves. We look at what we did wrong schematically, as coaches first, and what we would do differently for the future."

Speaking of the future, Fitzgerald is still hopeful that his team can turn things around very quickly, even if that's hard to believe after watching them play all year.

"We've got a long way to go, as far as a program, to get ourselves to Indianapolis," Fitzgerald said. "But I don't think we're that far away. I don't think we're that far away at all. And that's probably what's most disappointing to me right now, how darn close we are. And for us not to coach our guys well enough to get over that point is incredibly disappointing for me, for our seniors."