Northwestern has set the stage for a high-stakes finish

  • Northwestern players celebrate after they defeated Wisconsin 17-7 in an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

    Northwestern players celebrate after they defeated Wisconsin 17-7 in an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

 
 
Updated 11/23/2020 5:02 PM

Two years ago when Northwestern played in its first Big Ten title game, it was a nice milestone for the football program, and the Wildcats got some friendly pats on the head for being competitive against Ohio State.

After taking control of the Big Ten West by beating Wisconsin on Saturday, Northwestern is not only on track for an OSU rematch, but in position to ramp things up a few notches.

 

If the Wildcats can close out the regular season with wins over Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois, they'll be playing Ohio State with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line.

There's no reason to shy away from the forecast. Finish undefeated with a win over the Buckeyes and Northwestern will surely be in the playoff.

But they have to complete those next three steps first, beginning Saturday in East Lansing.

"We're just focused on going 1-0. That's all that matters," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday on his weekly Zoom call with reporters. "You want to ride that roller coaster. I hope you've got a vomit bag with you, it's a wild ride, right? You've got to stay focused on what's important, and we're doing that now."

The Wildcats already have thrown a changeup into the college football landscape by building a successful team around the defense. They tightened the clamps on a Wisconsin offense that had scored a combined 94 points in its first two games.

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Fitzgerald acknowledged the current linebacker crew of Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fischer and Chris Bergin is the best he has had. Then there might be NFL talent in the backfield with former Glenbard North star Greg Newsome at corner and redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph, who has 5 interceptions in his first five college games.

It's also worth pointing out that Northwestern finished 3-9 last year. So outside expectations were basically nonexistent at the start of the season.

"We knew what we had in this building and we knew if we put it all together on the field we were going to have a special group," Gallagher said. "That started in spring ball. Then we all got sent home, continued to work.

"We knew we had a special group. We just need to keep tunnel vision on one week at a time. Just worry about going 1-0 every week and let the rest of the stuff work itself out."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This is Fitzgerald's 15th year on the job and it has been a long, steady climb. Gary Barnett proved football success was possible in Evanston. Randy Walker showed it was no fluke. Then Fitzgerald took it to another level with consistent success.

A few years ago, NU was at a point where it could compete with Stanford for the nation's best academic-standout football players, but usually lose. The school's spectacular lakefront practice facility -- which Fitzgerald fought hard for -- seemed to push recruiting to new heights.

Depth of talent is an underrated trait. Guys get better in practice when there are more good players to compete against. That seems to be a key to Northwestern's recent rise.

Back in Barnett's glory days, the Wildcats used to win their Big Ten games and lose to MAC schools. This team faces a different task trying to finish off the final three games as a clear favorite.

An even greater challenge is navigating the coronavirus on a college campus. Fitzgerald said there hasn't been a single positive test in the football program since practice began. That speaks to the players' discipline, but there's also some luck involved. And a game could be canceled because an opponent has an outbreak.

"No. 1, you've got to understand why you win. You win because of the way that you prepare," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to do what mature teams do. You move on. You have a 24-hour rule, win or lose. You celebrate the victories, you learn from the defeats.

"Then on Monday after you leave the facility, you've moved on and it's on to the next opportunity. That's how we'll do it. We'll do it the way we always do it around here."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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