Northwestern hopes Dublin trip can be steppingstone to better season
Coach Pat Fitzgerald says he can tell Northwestern nation is excited about this week's trip to Dublin because of all the photos of Guinness pints that are arriving on his phone.
It's an unusual venue for the earliest Big Ten conference game ever played, with the Wildcats taking on Nebraska. But Fitzgerald should feel right at home -- both grandparents on his father's side emigrated from Ireland.
"When (my wife) Stacy and I went over in the spring, I had the opportunity to connect with my cousins, head out to see where my grandmother was baptized, where she went to church, where she went to school," Fitzgerald said. "So it was a very emotional time; 40 family members of mine are heading over to Dublin."
There are events planned once the team arrives Wednesday. After the game, the Wildcats will stay in Ireland on Sunday and give players the option of several different excursions before heading back to Evanston on Monday.
"We want our guys to experience it and enjoy being in a foreign country, meeting new people, building relationships, experiencing a new culture and just soaking it all in," Fitzgerald said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Of course, there's a game to be played.
Most Northwestern-Nebraska matchups have been competitive. Last year's was not, as the Cornhuskers won 56-7, posting both their highest-scoring and most lopsided win as a member of the Big Ten.
Nebraska will be tough to scout, since it had 22 transfers move in this winter and hired a new offensive coordinator in Mark Whipple. Last year, he worked at Pitt and developed the offense that made Kenny Pickett a Heisman finalist.
But word is Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi grew frustrated at Whipple's unwillingness to run the ball, which makes him an odd fit for Nebraska.
But who knows what the Huskers will have up their sleeve as they replace longtime starting quarterback Adrian Martinez, who is now at Kansas State.
Texas transfer Casey Thompson appears most likely to line up at QB in Dublin.
"Really, it's a business trip," NU running back Evan Hull said. "While there might be cool things to do, my mind's just going to be on the game. So as exciting as it is, we are all coming in with a fine focus. It might be different after the win, but coming into it, we're locked in."
Northwestern's greatest strength appears to be the run game. Four starters return on the offensive line, led by All-Big Ten left tackle Pete Skoronski from Maine South. Another returning starter is Libertyville's Charlie Schmidt, who played both guard and center last season.
Meanwhile, Hull is one of three returning Big Ten running backs who gained 1,000 yards last year. And the Wildcats return Cam Porter, who looked like a star on the rise as a freshman in 2020 before missing last season with an injury. Andrew Clair, who transferred from Bowling Green two years ago, could give the Cats a third weapon in the backfield.
Fitzgerald has not announced a starting quarterback. It figures to be Ryan Hilinski, a South Carolina transfer who started five games for NU last season. But sophomore Brendan Sullivan, thought to be a better run threat, has been in contention.
Five starters return on defense, including linebacker Bryce Gallagher, sack leader Adetomiwa Adebawore, and defensive backs Cameron Mitchell (Bolingbrook), Coco Azema and AJ Hampton.
The Wildcats have 11 transfers of their own. One local player of note is wide receiver Donny Navarro from Neuqua Valley, who caught 52 passes for Illinois the past three seasons. Neither NU nor Nebraska released a depth chart, so there will be surprises.
Over the past four years, Northwestern has won the Big Ten West division twice, and also posted the two worst records in Fitzgerald's 16 years on the job. The Wildcats went 3-9 last fall, so they're due for a bounce-back season.
"I feel great about it, No. 1 because of the way they worked this offseason," Fitzgerald said. "Coming into spring ball, we looked like a different squad. I feel like we got our edge back, our identity back.
"But now we're going to face adversity for the first time in Dublin. Leadership really has got to step up when you face adversity. I full expect that it will."