Northwestern looking to bounce back against Illinois State
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald did not need to search too far to remind his players that a loss in Week 1 does not squash their goals.
He just jogged their memories.
The Wildcats enter Saturday's game against FCS powerhouse Illinois State looking to rebound from a season-opening loss to MAC favorite Western Michigan and the knowledge that the team they beat in last year's opener did quite well in the end: Stanford went on to win the Pac-12 championship game and the Rose Bowl after Northwestern kept the Cardinal out of the end zone in a surprising 16-6 victory.
''I would say we beat them a lot more than Western Michigan beat us and (I) reminded the guys what they decided to do collectively as a program is learn from it and get better,'' Fitzgerald said. ''At the end of the year, you could say they were one of the best teams in the country.''
The Wildcats clearly have some work to do if they're going to match last season's school record-tying 10 wins, let alone challenge for the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth. Dominant on defense last season, they allowed Western Michigan to control the ball for 39 minutes and convert 4 of 4 fourth downs in a 22-21 loss.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson also fumbled at the goal line in the closing minutes, stopping the comeback attempt. And Northwestern lost by one after going 5-0 in games decided by seven points or less a year ago.
Yet as discouraging as the opener was, Northwestern can still achieve big things.
Safety Kyle Queiro found inspiration in the 1983 Miami team that beat Nebraska for the national championship in the Orange Bowl after getting blasted by Florida in the season opener and Jim Valvano leading North Carolina State to the NCAA basketball title that year.
''That kind of just fueled me up,'' Queiro said. ''It's a long season, and there's still work to do. I'm really excited about those things. It's not like we're going into uncharted territory. There's other teams that have done that before.''
Here are some things to look for as Northwestern tries to rebound against Illinois State:
Second in the Big Ten to Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott last season with 1,418 yards rushing, Justin Jackson opened his junior year on a strong note. He now has 14 career 100-yard games after running for 124 yards and a career-high three touchdowns last week. He is about to face a team that forced three turnovers and gave up just 22 yards rushing while stomping Valparaiso 50-13.
ABOUT ILLINOIS STATE
The Redbirds are just two years removed from the FCS championship game and are coming off a run to the quarterfinals. Quarterback Jake Kolbe threw for 166 yards and a touchdown last week, and had an interception returned for a TD. George Moreira ran for 93 yards on just seven attempts, and linebacker Alejandro Rivera returned an interception for a TD.
The Wildcats are banking on more from Thorson now that he has a season behind him. But his sophomore year opened on a difficult note. Thorson completed 15 of 22 passes for 196 yards, but the offense basically stalled. And the goal-line fumble was a crushing blow.
Linebacker Jaylen Prater set career highs against Western Michigan with nine solo and 18 total tackles, the most in a Northwestern opener since Pat Fitzgerald took over in 2006. Prater had 46 tackles as a junior last year before suffering a season-ending eye injury.
Northwestern's secondary could have its hands full with Anthony Warrum. A third-team All-American last season, he set a school record and led the Missouri Valley Football Conference with 15 touchdown catches and was second in the league with 1,290 yards receiving.