Northwestern has had the Big Ten West clinched for over two weeks now, which gave head coach Pat Fitzgerald a bit of freedom when it came to finishing out the regular season.
Things fell perfectly just over two weeks ago in Iowa when the Wildcats came away with a 14-10 win over the Hawkeyes and both Wisconsin and Purdue lost on the same day. Thanks to having wins over both teams, Northwestern owned the tiebreakers and the division.
Fitzgerald and his team still had games against Minnesota and Illinois to play, but that didn’t keep the head coach from looking ahead to possible opponents in the Big Ten Championship Game.
“With us clinching two weeks ago, I took the Minnesota week and I watched Michigan games after ours,” he admitted. “Then as we were preparing for Illinois, I watched all of Ohio State’s games leading into this weekend. After I got done watching Michigan, I’m like, ‘Man, I hope we don’t play these guys.’ And then after watching Ohio State, I’m like, ‘Man, I hope we don’t play these guys.’ It was a lose-lose from a schematic standpoint, coaching standpoint, and talent standpoint. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
Not only did Fitzgerald look ahead at the Buckeyes and the Wolverines, he also altered the way he coached his team on game days. He focused on keeping his team healthy and also showed as little as possible to whichever team they would end up facing.
“I definitely tweaked some things that we did the last two weeks knowing that this opportunity-slash-challenge was going to be in front of us,” he said. “I really limited what I allowed our coordinators to do this week against Illinois. I took most of our starters out pretty early. Offense and defensively, we were very vanilla and didn’t play some guys that could have played. Just took some calculated risks, I guess you’d call them. Basically, what I did was I thought we could win with the talent that we had, and obviously the guys proved me right, so I’m proud of them for that.”
Urban Meyer and Ohio State, meanwhile, were preparing for Maryland and Michigan. Based on the results of the Maryland game, however, one could argue that maybe the Buckeyes were looking ahead to the Wolverines.
Regardless of where Meyer and his team were looking, it certainly wasn’t at Northwestern.
“That’s a huge advantage,” Meyer said of Northwestern’s head start. “It is. I mean, I can assure you, we weren’t watching anything other than our rival. I think that’s an advantage. It certainly is.”
In the week between the Michigan game and the Big Ten Championship Game, the Buckeyes have to try to catch up with Northwestern’s preparation.
The most important thing, however, is making sure the team is fresh and ready when kickoff finally takes place.
“That’s what we’re trying to do right now [is catch up],” Meyer said on Monday. “I think the biggest thing is we just played a very physical game and our goal — I think what our offensive linemen have done, they played 95 plays against Michigan State, very rugged defense. They went and played 105 plays against Maryland where the 105th play was as important as the 22nd. And they just went against the No. 1 defense in America with a bunch of rugged players.
“The priority is about freshness, knowing what you’re doing. Right when I get out of here, me and Mick are going to plan the whole week to make sure that happens.”