Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is just one win away from doing something that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago – leading the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl as both a player and a coach.
The former NU all-American linebacker will need his team to knock off heavily-favored Ohio State on Saturday night to do it.
The Wildcats have had a crazy season, losing all three of their non-conference games, including a shocking upset against Akron. But they finished 7-1 in Big Ten play, with the only loss coming by three points against Michigan.
Now they have a chance to earn just their third Rose Bowl berth in program history, and the first since Fitzgerald was a player back in 1996.
Here’s a quick rundown of what he had to say after arriving in Indiananpolis.
+ The Wildcats have treated this week pretty much like a normal road game. They held a short walk-through at Lucas Oil Stadium Friday afternoon.
+ Fitzgerald would vote for Dwayne Haskins if he had a Heisman vote. His poise and accuracy jumps out while watching him on film.
+ Getting to Indianapolis “was the next hurdle for our program to get over.” Now the next goal is to win on Saturday night.
+ This is “the most successful senior class we’ve ever had” at Northwestern. Winning the rivalry game against Illinois and the Big Ten West “was a special and surreal moment for us.”
+ Saturday will be Clayton Thorson’s 52nd start. “I think a guy that maybe outside of our program is a little underappreciated.”
+ He doesn’t think the team will be overwhelmed on Saturday: “We’ve already played two top-10 teams, this will be our third. We’ve been in some big games.”
+ Fitzgerald thinks that trips to Indianapolis like this one will become a recurring event for his program: “I have 100% confidence that this is going to become a consistent theme of our program.”
+ He thinks Urban Meyer has made a big impact on the Big Ten conference: “When he came in, he talked a lot about recruiting, he talked a lot about fan experience, about atmospheres in buildings, about being willing to compete nationally.”
+ Recruiting in Ohio is “critically important to the success of our program.” This year’s Northwestern team has 18 natives of the Buckeye state.
+ However, “we haven’t beaten the Buckeyes on a recruit yet” recruiting head-to-head against Urban Meyer at Ohio State. “He can talk about the ones that he’s kicked my rear-end on.”
+ Fitzgerald was happy with how the team prepared this week: “I thought they were great every day.”
+ He reminisced about recruiting safety Nate Hall from Sylvania, Ohio, and watching him dunk a basketball: “I think he’ll be able to play for us. His coach couldn’t dunk the ball.”
+ He’s “very proud of the way” freshman running back Isaiah Bowser has “stepped up” after their former starter Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire for medical reasons in the middle of the season.
+ The team has put early-season losses to Duke and Akron behind them: “Let’s look forward and change the narrative of what this team is all about, the legacy of this team.”
+ He had seniors and their families over after the Northwestern – Illinois game, but had one eye on the TV “watching the score, the score, the score.” He called the Buckeyes’ win “an outstanding performance.”
+ He and his team know they’re underdogs, but he hasn’t made a big deal out of it this week: “My mom and dad think we can get it done. My sisters probably don’t.”
+ This is an incredible opportunity for his program: “We have 50-plus buses of students coming down from Evanston. If that doesn’t talk about what’s awesome for college football, you need to check your pulse.”
+ The Wildcats have been shorthanded in the secondary recently, but guys are working hard to get back: “The guys have been working diligently in their rehabs, getting themselves ready to play tomorrow night.”
+ Fitzgerald said his program is working to change the narrative surrounding it: “You go undefeated in the Big Ten West, we’re three points away from being pretty close to being unblemished in the Big Ten. We won 15 out of the last 16 in the Big Ten.”
+ He was extremely complimentary of OSU offensive coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day: “Both guys I think are at the top of the offensive coordinator charts. As you look at the guys that put a lot of pressure on you schematically, they put a lot of pressure on you from an adjustment standpoint in game, then obviously they’ve recruited phenomenally.”
+ Overall, he thinks Ohio State has a solid defense: “First time starters, as you see they’re well coordinated, maybe just a couple fundamental breakdowns, maybe a couple communication breakdowns.”
+ He knows that while he has made significant progress at Northwestern, he’s still not on the Buckeyes’ level: “As I look at where we’re at right now, we’re nowhere close to Ohio State. We’re never going to be close to Ohio State. We’re very different, the size of our school, the location. We just want to be the best us. We know who we are. We want to be the best Northwestern that we can be. If we do that consistently, we’ll consistently be in this game.”
[Header photo courtesy: Northwestern University]