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updated: 11/22/2010 6:30 PM

NU finds tackling a tough task

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You'd think defenders at any college, but Northwestern in particular, ought to be able to master the ABC's of tackling.

Turns out the Wildcats flunked out of Wrigley Field during Saturday's 48-27 Big Ten loss to Illinois.

NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said manpower wasn't the problem when the Illini piled up an absurd 519 rushing yards and junior Mikel Leshoure earned every weekly honor available for his school-record 330-yard day.

"We had enough (defenders) in the box," Fitzgerald said. "That wasn't the issue. The issue was fitting right and tackling and getting off blocks. Kind of A-B-C of defense.

"You've got to fit right, you've got to get off blocks and you've got to tackle. If you can't get through A, B and C, then you know what? C to Z is going to be bad. And that's what happened."

Fitzgerald and the defensive staff counted 31 missed tackles, which broke the season high of 27 set on Nov. 6 at Penn State.

If the Wildcats aren't careful, they could eclipse that mark in Saturday's regular-season finale at No. 5 Wisconsin (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7).

The Badgers already have set the single-season school record for rushing touchdowns with 41 and they haven't missed a beat without their Doak Walker Award finalist.

John Clay missed the last two weeks with a knee injury, so sophomore Montee Ball and freshman James White stepped in to combine for 665 yards and 11 TDs against Indiana and Michigan.

During one second-half stretch against the Wolverines, Wisconsin ran the ball 29 plays in a row. Think a "re-run" might be possible this week? Keep in mind the Badgers also boast senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, who overtook Dan Persa last week for the national lead with a 73.9 percent completion rate.

"It's guaranteed they're going to run the ball," said junior safety Brian Peters, who was credited with a career-high 18 tackles against Illinois. "They've got their two successful backs. It's up to us to bow up and step up and be physical and stop the run and protect against the pass because Tolzien is an efficient passer."

Quarterback news:

Dan Persa had the cast and stitches removed from his surgically repaired right Achilles' tendon Monday.

He's at least five months away from returning to the field, but he's trying to contribute by tutoring redshirt freshman successor Evan Watkins.

The 2009 Glenbard North graduate went 10 of 20 for 135 yards, 1 interception and 1 fumble against Illinois. Like many young quarterbacks in their first start, Watkins had a tendency to hold the ball in the pocket a little too long.

"That's on me," he said. "When our main progression in the route is not there, it's my job to move on and get the ball to somebody else that's open. That'll be my job to emphasize this week.

"(Persa) just told me stuff (about) our progression: Just getting the ball out of my hands a little quicker, just making some different pre-snap reads and stuff like that to help me this week."

True freshman Kain Colter, who played a handful of snaps against Illinois, will be a part of this week's game plan thanks to his dual-threat capabilities.

"I think he's got as good a (set of) jukes as anyone on the team," said tight end Drake Dunsmore.

"I'll vouch for Kain, too," said safety Brian Peters. "He's got some wiggles."

Pat Fitzgerald declined to guessestimate Colter's involvement this week, though he promised the Denver native would play less than every snap and more than zero.

"He's got a lot of swagger," Fitzgerald said. "He's got a lot of belief and confidence in himself. That's what I like about him."