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"Expect the Unexpected" From Northwestern Against Syracuse

Pat Fitzgerald isn't quite sure what to expect when his team takes on Syracuse this Saturday. (Photo courtesy Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt remembers one thing from Northwestern’s last trip to Syracuse in 2009.

“It’s hot,” he said.

It’s a stark contrast from the conditions NU will likely face the following week at night at Ryan Field. The Wildcats will be playing inside the Carrier Dome, a loud environment with no air conditioning. That’s tough to prepare to and tough to emulate in Evanston, but NU has been making due with the weather and its indoor facility.

“We had a perfect day to prepare for what we’re going to have to see in the dome — (it was) warm, muggy outside,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We were outside a majority of practice and then went inside to try and simulate the crowd noise that we’ll see on Saturday. We couldn’t have asked for anything better, as far as weather-wise prep, for today.”

The last time NU entered “The Loud House” at Syracuse, the Cats fell 37-24 to the Orange. The only other time played in conditions that muggy was the year before at Duke, when NU pulled out a late win, but Fitzgerald said his team “didn’t do as well as they could.”

“Oof, that was nasty,” he said.

After the bad experience in Durham and dealing with the Carrier Dome in 2009, NU has a plan for its return to Syracuse this year.

“(The Duke game) was an anomaly,” Fitzgerald said. “We have a hydration plan, we expect to play a lot of guys in the opener. We typically always have because of that. This is our first time going out as a team and playing. You’ll see a lot of guys play on Saturday, it won’t be just the ones. We’ll try to play as many guys as we can to try to help us that way.”

The heat and humidity are just an added worry to the tough task that lies ahead for NU — playing a BCS opponent with a returning quarterback on the road to open the season.

There is a lot of youth on the two-deeps for the Cats this year, and for that reason — and the heat — expect a lot of rotation. But that’s about the only thing anyone can expect to see Saturday. A number of young players performed well in practice, but now that it’s showtime, it’s also discovery time all over again.

“The thing you can guarantee in an opener is to expect the unexpected,” Fitzgerald said.

NU’s youngest position is superback, where a true freshman (Dan Vitale) will get the start and a redshirt freshman (Mark Szott) will back him up. But there is also youth on the offensive line — redshirt freshman Jack Konopka will start at right tackle — and throughout the entire secondary. Even corner Nick VanHoose, has been a regular on the first team throughout the spring and fall, he has never played a down of college football. It’s tough to know what to expect from the young guys, but Fitzgerald has high expectations.

“Go out and execute,” he said. “That’s why they’re there. They’ve executed the best in practice and you take these reps in practice to be able to trust yourself in the game, and that’s what we talk about and preach here — just trust themselves and go out and execute fundamentally.”

Off the field, this team has the potential to improve from last year’s disappointing season, despite the youth, and Fitzgerald said this team’s chemistry “reminds me of the best chemistry teams that we’ve had.” However, it’s a whole new game once the team shifts from the practice field to the playing field. Expect the unexpected, and that’s about all anyone, even the coaches, can predict about this game.

“I’m looking forward to going and playing,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ll know a lot more next Monday.”