Northwestern hosts UMass, eager to end 7-game slide

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              Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, right, yells to quarterback Aidan Smith (11) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Purdue, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Evanston, Ill. Purdue won 24-22. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
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EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Northwestern gets a break from Big Ten play and maybe a reprieve from all this losing. Consider that one big “maybe.”

The stumbling Wildcats will try again to steady themselves and break a seven-game losing streak when they host UMass in a matchup of one-win teams Saturday.

“This game, it mirrors life,” left tackle Rashawn Slater said. “If we quit now, what will that say about us? We have great families, come from great places and we don’t back down.”

The Wildcats (1-8) became the first team to go from playing in the Big Ten championship game since its inception to 2011 to finishing last in its division the following season. With a 24-22 loss to Purdue last week, they matched their worst skid since 2013. They also fell to 0-7 in conference play and clinched a spot at the bottom of the division.

“We just want to win by one,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to get a win.”

Northwestern hasn’t lost eight straight or gone winless in conference play since 1998, Gary Barnett’s final season. The Wildcats went 0-8 in the Big Ten and 3-9 overall, three years after he led them on a stunning run to the Rose Bowl that captured the nation’s imagination.

Now, the best Wildcats can hope for is matching the worst record in Fitzgerald’s 14 seasons. The 2006 team went 4-8 after he took over following the unexpected death of Randy Walker.

Northwestern would have to win its final three games, and the schedule isn’t promising.

No. 7 Minnesota visits next week, before a trip to surging Illinois to close out the season. An unexpected hat trick would give Fitzgerald (97-78) — by far the program’s winningest coach — 100 victories.

Before they can think about the Gophers (9-0, 6-0) or Illini (6-4, 3-4), the Wildcats have to get past the Minutemen. UMass (1-9) got blown out 63-7 at Army last week for its fifth straight loss since beating winless Akron in September.

“Maybe if we were (8-1) in the Big Ten (we would have to guard against a letdown),” Fitzgerald said. “This year? No. Not at all.”

STRUGGLING OFFENSE, STRUGGLING DEFENSE

Northwestern broke out somewhat on offense last week with three touchdowns, after getting shredded a combined 106-6 by Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana. The Wildcats still ranked 127th of 130 teams in total offense and 129th in scoring through the Purdue game. UMass has been just as bad on the other side of the ball. The Minutemen are giving up more points per game (53.1) and yards (569.6) than any other team.

RECORD IN REACH

Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano needs just a half-sack to tie the program record of 28 by Casey Dailey from 1994 to 1997. Gaziano and junior linebacker Paddy Fisher are the nation’s active leaders with 10 career forced fumbles each.

BIG RETURNS

One bright spot for UMass is Isaiah Rodgers. The senior leads the nation with a school-record 1,133 kickoff return yards this year and ranks fourth on the Minutemen’s all-time list with 34 pass breakups.

UNFAMILIAR FOES

This will be the first meeting between Northwestern and Massachusetts. Why did Fitzgerald schedule this game?

“I don’t exactly remember how it worked itself out,” he said. “I think we needed a game in this year. The Big Ten moving some games around forced us to have to find someone later in the season.”

The Wildcats had a week off following the season-opening loss at Stanford. Fitzgerald figured the early bye after facing a tough opponent out west would give his team time to recharge. Northwestern then beat UNLV at home. But Fitzgerald acknowledged in hindsight he might have done things differently.

HURTING

Northwestern lost tailback Kyric McGowan and right tackle Gunnar Vogel to injuries last week. Vogel will miss the remainder of the season. McGowan — who ran for 146 yards and a touchdown against Purdue — is out indefinitely, Fitzgerald said.