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The importance of the bye week for Northwestern

Pat Fitzgerald is 0-6 coming off a bye week as Northwestern head coach. But this week and next are about more than just ending that streak.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

"I would obviously rather play. If we're going to have a bye week, I'd rather have the bye week over Thanksgiving, for the kids. I've said that for a long time. I don't think having multiple bye weeks and not having Thanksgiving off is the right thing to do. I just don't understand that."

Those were the words of Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald following Thursday’s practice. But while Fitzgerald is seemingly dismissing the positives that the bye week brings, it might actually come at an ideal time for him and his team. The season is off to a dreadful start, so something has to change. And this week presents Fitzgerald and his coaching staff with the perfect opportunity to ignite such change.

However, Fitzgerald’s track record with an extra seven days to prepare isn’t great. In fact, since taking over as head coach at Northwestern in 2006, Fitzgerald has never won a game coming off a bye week -- he’s 0-6.

But during this week off, it won’t be about snapping that streak. Surely the Wildcats will do so, with FCS squad Western Illinois looming in Week 4. Rather, it will be about altering the course of this season.

In an attempt to do so, it seems that Fitzgerald has tried to force his players out of their comfort zone; to disrupt the weekly pattern that has led to this losing skid.

As we reported, practices this week have been "even more intense than usual," and whereas many upperclassmen expected to have days off earlier this week, and in the past maybe would have, nearly all of them were practicing. Fitzgerald is clearly sending a message.

"You don’t play the way we’re playing now and think we’re in any way, shape or form prepared to win a football game by taking some time off," he told reporters Wednesday. "We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’re going to get our attitude fixed."

Often when we think of bye weeks, we think of the advantage of having an extra week to prepare for a specific opponent. And that’s something that perhaps Fitzgerald hasn’t taken full advantage of in the past. But in this case, NU's next opponent takes a backseat. Fitzgerald said NU already has most of its gameplan in place for WIU next Saturday, and as should be the case, these two weeks have become about restructuring a broken mentality.

Northwestern became too comfortable with who they were. As they trudged along with the same schemes, the same philosophies, the same weekly rhythms, and the same ways of doing things, they were surrounded by change, and they were too complacent to cope with those changes -- to respond to adversity. That, more than anything, is why Fitzgerald has called out his team's lack of toughness, and labelled them "an embarrassment."

But now, with some time to reset and address the problem -- that ill-fated contentment -- Fitzgerald and his players will hope that this bye week becomes a turning point in the season. But it won’t just happen naturally. The coaches and players will have to be proactive and embrace their roles as catalysts for change.