Fitzgerald has Northwestern stoked to bid for first Big Ten title

Is this the year?

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For all that Pat Fitzgerald has gotten done as the head coach at Northwestern, there’s one thing he has only accomplished as a player at his alma mater—win a league championship.

Nobody’s going to predict that this fall. Wisconsin is the dominant power in the Big Ten West until proven otherwise. Nebraska and Iowa, the other West teams that have appeared in the Big Ten title game, are the perennial lurkers.

But under-the-radar Northwestern has all the ingredients to give Fitz the division flag he hasn’t hoisted as a coach, and with it a shot at the Big Ten championship, an accomplishment he enjoyed as a player in 1995 and ’96.

NU’s first two Big Ten games could tell the tale. The key dates on the schedule shape up as the Wildcats’ Sept. 30 trip to Wisconsin for their Big Ten opener, followed by Penn State’s trip to Evanston on Oct. 7.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Interestingly, when NU last won a Big Ten title 21 years ago, it needed a stout defense to pull out a 34-30 win at Wisconsin. That Oct. 19, 1996, win enabled it to share the championship with Ohio State with a 7-1 conference mark.

Trailing 27-20 with 1:33 to play, the Wildcats came up with a fumble by Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne that set up their game-winning touchdown.

I covered that game. Even then, Fitz, on his way to being named the nation’s best defensive player for the second straight season, showed his potential as a coach in terms of post-game quotes.

``You just have to believe,’’ he told us. ``That was our whole attitude today. We wanted to play as one heartbeat all day long, and we did that. We knew we had to go out and get the ball back, and we did that.’’

Now in his 12th season, Fitzgerald, who’s still only 42, has accomplished a lot at NU. He’s had opportunities to leave for some of the most storied programs in the nation, but has stayed put. I believe he’s the perfect fit at Northwestern, and clearly he does, too.

But because he hasn’t won a division title, let alone the league, and because Wisconsin also is coming off another dominant year, the Badgers remain the frontrunner.

That doesn’t really matter. There’s no reason to do the Aretha Franklin/Rodney Dangerfield lament about Respect! under a purple spotlight now. There will be ample opportunity to earn it on the field.

And Fitzgerald is right to think he has the players to do just that.

They start with quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson. The Penn State duo of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley deserve all the hype they are generating. It should be an exciting day when the Nittany Lions come to Evanston.

But don’t be surprised if NU’s ‘sons give Penn State’s ‘leys all they can handle.

NU knows it had a sub-par 2016. Its 7-6 mark doesn’t cut it in the Fitz Era. What kind of gets lost in there, though, is that after a dismal 1-3 start that included losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State, the Cats put together a nice 5-3 finish and added a solid Pinstripe Bowl win over Pitt. With their backs to the wall, they won consecutive road games at Iowa and Michigan State, and were competitive in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Bad start? Yes. Good finish? Aye, aye.

Thorson and Jackson, as you would expect, were huge.

Thorson ``won 10 games as a redshirt freshman [in 2015], and nobody talked about it,’’ Fitzgerald said. ``Last year, I thought you saw an amazing maturation in his game and his leadership and his confidence.’’

With a big year, Thorson might even have the opportunity to pass on his final year at NU and move on to the NFL. That’s rare in Evanston for any player, let alone a QB.

``Do I believe he’s going to be an NFL quarterback? Absolutely,’’ Fitzgerald said. ``If it’s after this year, that’s a win-win for our program. That means he’s had a really good year.’’

And that means NU has had a really good year.

Jackson, who has more combined rushes and receptions than any player in the nation the last three seasons, also seems poised for a big year. He’s on pace to become the all-time second-leading rusher in Big Ten history,

Jackson, who has rushed for 4,129 yards, can move into the No. 2 slot by matching last year’s 1,524-yard season, behind Dayne (7,125) and ahead of Archie Griffin (5,589).

``He could end up the second all-time leading back in Big Ten history,’’ Fitzgerald said. ``The guys above and below him [won three] Heisman Trophies. To me it’s mind-boggling that no one’s talking about him in that vein. Saquon’s a rock star; he’s a great player. We haven’t played [Penn State] in a number of years, which has been awesome. [Barkley] is spectacular. But to see the durability and production that Justin has, that warrants that type of attention.’’

Put that one-two punch behind the muscle of a squad that returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense. Factor in a 2016 campaign in which, after a messy 1-3 start, Northwestern went 6-3 the rest of the way, including a pair of top-10 losses.

It all adds up to. . . don’t be surprised if the Wildcats take Fitzgerald the coach to a place he hasn’t been since he was Fitzgerald the player.[/membership]