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Northwestern Snippet and Stat: 9/19

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

At first glance, Dan Vitale's 25 receiving yards are a blip on the radar screen. And then you recall that Vitale is a true freshman and that coach Pat Fitzgerald is usually reticent when it comes to playing true freshmen. Suddenly, Vitale's 13 receiving yards in Saturday's 22-13 victory over Boston College seem far more noteworthy. After all, Fitzgerald wasn't simply letting Vitale play in a Towson-esque rout, he was inserting Vitale into a key situation in a close game.

"We've got a lot of confidence in Danny," Fitzgerald said. "He's played in, what, three games now, so he's not a freshman anymore. He's in the mix."
At the time, approximately midway through the third quarter, Northwestern was clinging to a slim two-point lead and was backed up to its own six-yard line. On second and eight, with the Wildcats truly needing to emerge out of the shadow of their own end zone, Fitzgerald demonstrated his trust in his freshman superback, as did junior quarterback Kain Colter, and their confidence was rewarded. Vitale securely caught the screen pass and ran nine yards along the sideline to secure a Northwestern first down. Approximately six minutes later, that same drive would end in a 19-yard field goal to help solidify Northwestern's lead.

"We threw a quick screen to him and he stuck his foot in the ground and went north and got (nine)," Fitzgerald said. "That goes back to his skills that he had at Wheaton Warenville South. He was physical and dynamic with the ball in his hands in high school."

Fitzgerald, who so admired Vitale's play in high school, has lofty goals for his young superback, who he compared to his recently departed stud at superback, Drake Dunsmore, who was picked in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
"I think he's a little further ahead than Drake as a true freshman, I really do, just from the standpoint that Danny is really comfortable with the ball in his hands just because of his background," Fitzgerald said. "Obviously, don't write this the wrong way; he's not Drake Dunsmore, alright, but comparing them as freshmen, he's probably just a little bit stronger physically than Drake was. Hopefully, Danny will continue to embrace what Drake did and hopefully stay a little bit healthier."
Dunsmore himself had a fairly impressive freshman season for the Wildcats, recording 141 yards on 11 receptions as one of only two true freshmen to play for Fitzgerald that year. His efforts would earn him a spot on The Sporting News' Freshmen All-Big Ten Team. Dunsmore would go on to post 40-plus receptions in each of his final three seasons in Evanston, including 522 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns his senior season. As Fitzgerald said, Vitale is no Drake Dunsmore yet. He has big shoes to fill.

Northwestern is only two wins away from securing its first winning season at home since 2009, a year in which the Wildcats would go on to face Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Northwestern has been surprisingly pedestrian at home over the past couple of years, finishing just 3-3 in both 2010 and 2011. In coach Pat Fitzgerald's time in Evanston, the Wildcats have failed to make Ryan Field into a particularly intimidating home venue. Their 24-17 record at home during Fitzgerald's six-plus years as head coach isn't all that different from their 18-15 record away from home under Fitzgerald. Technically, the Wildcats did post a winning record at Ryan Field in 2010, finishing 3-2 in Evanston with their third "home" loss occurring in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field.