This is the classic story of an inspirational rise from the dung heap of college football programs. The story line goes directly thru great Cat coach and protagonist, F Pat Fitzgerald, whom some of y'all may have already heard, bleeds big purple.
Fitz was a student-athlete at Evanston in the mid-1990s, and soon became the starting middle-linebacker (mlb). On many teams the mlb is the leader, the very heart 'n soul of the defense, and thats Fitz'z '95-'96 Wildcats. 1995 was the very FIRST year the Northwestern football team had had a winning record in 23 years! Think of it!! Twenty-three years of continuous, unabated losing!!! Only once had they managed to win even as many as 4 games in a season, during that long, desiccated dry spell.
Not only that, but back in 1976 - '81, NW managed to lose ALL but three, 3 of 66 games! Only 3 wins in 6 years! Can you imagine your favorite team with such a record? Believe-you-me, I'm not making this stuff up.
The Cats before Fitz were essentially a schedule-filler for other predators. Today's St Nicholaus State. The Cats were a gift, the cream pie that keeps on getting creamed, repeatedly, like a good dessert or a perennially pathetic, ritual blood-letting.
Giving Opposing Offenses Fitz
Then boom! ..seemingly all of a sudden, up steps Fitz in 1995, and NW doesn't just win half their games, no, they win TEN, and they go undefeated in the Big Ten (really 11) and thus head off to the Rose Bowl Daddy for the first time in almost half a century!
However, Fitz was out for that bowl game. Only a broken leg could've kept him out. Sadly, that gave $C the edge, although the Cats clawed 'n scratched, as if they had taken on Fitz' spiritz, before succumbing to a virulent case of cat-scratch fever, and a potent Trojan Man, 32-41.
But buyer beware, don't be foodled by that relatively high 31-42 Rose Bowl score. Behind the ferocious leadership of Fitz and a plethora of his big hits, NW had allowed only one opponent to score more than 20pts during their 11 regular season games. Yes, opposing Offenses averaged just 12.6 ppg vs Fitz and his pack of feral, fanged felines..
Was that performance outstanding 'ship-caliber defense, or what, you might ask?
Answer - Yes.
Yes, and it doesn't take an Einstein-like Stanford student to know that great D, indeed wins 'ships.
In 1995, NW played 8 Big Ten teams, plus 3 non-conference games that included a stunning upset of #9 ranked Notre Dame, 17-15! They then went 8-0 in conference and 10-1 overall before heading to Pasadena. Remember now, that was back when the Big Ten was truly Big. Ohio St, Michigan, Penn St, Iowa, Wisconsin... they were all big and powerful.. but it was Fitz, his teammates, and an extremely stingy defense that elevated the Catz to the hot tin rooftops of what was THE Big
Ten.. Truly Ten?
Haha.. yeah right, even back then, it was really 11...
(Is it all just a bunch of lies ?)
Returning to the Scene of the Sublime
Well, what we do know is, just 10 years ago Pat Fitzgerald takes over as head coach at NW after Randy Walker tragically dies of a heart attack, and within two years, Fitz leads the team to the first of a NW record 5 straight bowl games, and eventually their first bowl win in over 60 years.
That, in a nutshell, is the legacy Stanford will be up against in Evanston, early Saturday morning (9am PST), for the fast approaching season opener on Sept 5th.
Word is, Fitz is currently struggling to replace the starting QB from last year, Trevor Siemian (392 PA, 228 PC, 58.2%, 2214 YDs, 7 TDs, 11 INTs, 105.9 QBR) not to mention the previous departure of dynamic leader and play-maker, Kain Colter, in the fall-out from the Players Union court case. That case, the internal divisions and distractions it's caused, have certainly been a contributing factor in the team's two straight disappointing 5-7 seasons. Note, they were previously 10-3 in 2012.
So the burning question this year is, have Fitz and the Cats put all the turmoil and distractions behind them?
RB Justin Jackson is coming off a highly productive season (ssn) as the team's somewhat smallish (5-11, 185lbs) yet elusive and effective, primary RB (245 carries, 1,187 yards, 4.8 ypc, 10 TDs). He's running behind a strong, intelligent, and powerful OL that returns 3 starters, plus several seasoned and promising back-ups ready to step up and fill in. A couple of explosive WRs also return, Christian Jones in particular, after having missed last season due to injury.. but also Dan Vitale and Cameron Dickerson have been reliable. The early season question is who will throw to them (before Fitz has a fit ) -- will it be the young, inexperienced but potentially dynamic, rsFr Clayton Thorson? Perhaps it will be the older, and much bigger, but less mobile Sr (6-4, 240lb) Zack Oliver? I've read that, heretofore, neither has been all that consistent in Summer Camp.
We shall see...
But MOST importantly, one would be very wise to consider that a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team will be very strong and solid defensively. And one would be correct, in that during Fitz' ten-year tenure, the Cats have consistently allowed and meowed in the neighborhood of low-to-mid 20's, i.e., about 22-27pts allowed per game.
There's continuity this year as well, as the defense returns 8 starters and 8 of their top 12 tacklers from last year, including the intact DL with quality size and depth, and 3/4 of the DBs.
Early Prediction :
My guess is, partly due to the long flight across multiple time zones, and thus the early start time, including maybe some early jitters, Stanford struggles on offense and a bit on defense in the first half, trailing 10-13 at the break. In the second half Northwestern sullenly and grudgingly relinquishes control of the line of scrimmage, as the Tree OL asserts itself in a sudden growth spurt between the mid-3rd to 4th quarters, pulling away to win by about 31 to 16, and in command at the final gun.
S - 0...10...7..14 - 31
N - 7....6....3...0 - 16