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Northwestern has had success; now the Wildcats must handle it

Pat Fitzgerald, just like most fans, sees this team's potential. Now he wants to see production.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — Pat Fitzgerald's focus for the week following his team's 16-6 upset win over then-No. 21 Stanford in the season-opener wasn't on Northwestern's upcoming opponent in Eastern Illinois. Rather, it was on how his team would, as he called it, "handle success."

"The biggest test was Tuesday," Fitzgerald said about the first practice following the Stanford victory. "Were we going to show up ready to go? I thought the way we approached the start of the week would be more important than [the game against Eastern Illinois]. No disrespect to Eastern, but we felt pretty confident about the game."

Technically, that Tuesday practice was in preparation for Northwestern's 41-0 victory over EIU on Saturday. But in a larger sense, the tough nature of that Tuesday practice was more about his team's mindset.

"I thought Tuesday's practice was one of the best practices we've had around here in a long time... I challenged them hard about proving to ourselves that we are mature enough to handle success... When we can start to do that consistently, our play will start to become consistent."

Through two weeks, Fitzgerald said in his typical fashion, Northwestern "went 1-0 twice." And with the historically great start — this marks the first time Northwestern has kept back-to-back opponents out of the end zone since 1958 —questions about this team's potential continue to creep up.

Freshman signal-caller Clayton Thorson threw his first career touchdown pass and ran for another score against EIU. The running game featured seven different players gaining over 20 yards. Cornerback Matthew Harris had two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. The Wildcats backed up their upset win over Stanford with another physically dominating performance over a clearly inferior opponent.

How good could this team be?

Fitzgerald hates that question.

"I think the potential is exactly that. It's potential. I want production," he said. "I believe that we have to continue to have a Chicago mentality: roll your sleeves up and go to work, and work to get one percent better every rep, every day. When we've been pretty good around here, that's what we've done."

Next week, Northwestern will make its first road trip of the season down south to play Duke. And Fitzgerald, as he usually does, explained how big of a "challenge" the trip will be. It will be the first bit of "adversity" this group will face, he said.

"Obviously this challenge coming up this week is going to tell us a lot about our team," Fitzgerald said. "All hands on deck. Let's see if we're ready to go play."

If last week was any indication, Tuesday's practice could be another doozy for the Wildcats. And, for this team, with potential that, for some reason, seems so unexpectedly high, its those practices that could teach a young team more about itself than actual games.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Fitzgerald said. "But I like where we're at through two weeks."