CHICAGO — In 2016, Northwestern had one of the worst starts to a football season in recent memory. The Wildcats dug themselves into a deep chasm after losses to Western Michigan, Illinois State, and Nebraska, and, even though they ended the season on a high note with a bowl victory, finished a mediocre 7-6.
“I think last year was a very average season, to below average, way below our expectations,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday. “I’m not going to let happen what happened last year again.”
Star running back Justin Jackson echoed the same sentiments.
“We didn’t come into every single game prepared like we wanted to,” Jackson said. “I think it came down to us as leaders, kind of failing our team. I think especially early on into the season we were looking ahead too much.”
Jackson, now entering his final season with the Wildcats, is on the brink of breaking the school’s all-time rushing record. But he isn't focused on his rushing total. His full attention is dedicated to winning games — and avoiding last season's miscues.
“My job tomorrow is to work just as hard...you can’t get caught up in records and whatever,” Jackson said. Throughout Media Day, he emphasized Northwestern’s Week 1 game against Nevada and staying focused throughout the season, no matter who the opponent is. “We’ve got good opponents early [in conference season] and we’ve got good opponents near the end. We’ve got a lot of good non-conference opponents. It’s the Big Ten, you never know who’s going to be great.”
But if Northwestern can achieve that dream start, going 3-0 in the non-conference slate before knocking off division-favorite Wisconsin at Camp Randall, the team could be on track for something special. This is not one of those years in which everyone doubts Northwestern. NU is on the championship radar, albeit as a sleeper pick. There's a feeling that this Pat Fitzgerald has the talent to to make the Badgers — the perennial class of the West — sweat a little bit.
While every coach at Big Ten Media Days repeated the mantra of winning championships, the 2017 Wildcats have a very good shot at backing up those words. The team returns a top shelf Big Ten quarterback. Northwestern has a reasonable schedule without Michigan or Ohio State and a defense that has been reliably great over the past three years. The team’s over/under on wins in Vegas is 7.5 for a reason.
“I think we’ve got a great shot this year,” Clayton Thorson said, when asked about Northwestern’s chances at a Big Ten title. “It’s a matter of taking it day by day and winning. That’s all that matters.”
Thorson will be the centerpiece of any potential 2017 run. Our own Martin Oppegaard chronicled his growing confidence and maturity, and Northwestern will need every bit of what he’s learned over the past two seasons. However, Thorson isn’t the whole story. With Austin Carr, Anthony Walker, Ifeadi Odenigbo, and Joe Jones all gone, Northwestern has uncertainty at several key positions. As expected, Fitzgerald was confident that Northwestern could find a solution for all of its problems.
“Every year, 20, 25 percent of your team graduates," Fitzgerald said, "and now you've got to replace it from a standpoint of freshmen coming in, but that’s a new opportunity for guys that have been in the program."
Whether it’s Paddy Fisher or Nathan Fox at linebacker, Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson at wide receiver, or one of the seven options Fitzgerald has brought in to replace Jack Mitchell at kicker, Northwestern has some answers. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald doesn't have the luxury of easing his younger players into Big Ten play. In order to be a Big Ten title contender, Northwestern probably needs to find a solid middle linebacker, lead receiver, kicker, kick returner, and defensive end by Week 5, the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin.
As soon as camp begins, Northwestern will be on the clock to repair and refine its machinery. However, there won’t be quite as much time as there’s been in previous years. The NCAA offered teams a chance to start practices a week early due to the elimination of two-a-days, but the Wildcats will not be taking advantage of this waiver.
Said Fitzgerald: “I sat down with our leadership council and said, 'Guys, I can bring you in right away after summer school or we can take our traditional week to recharge and reenergize and show up for camp on August 5th, maybe come in a day early or two days early.' That's what we decided to do.”
The schedule will be compressed (the usual scrimmage in Kenosha isn’t happening, and there are other small tweaks). The hours before Week 1 against Nevada are ticking away.
But Northwestern’s head coach and players are not worried about slacking off this time around.
“This is the strongest we’ve been, the fastest we’ve been, the most mature our team has been,” senior safety Godwin Igwebuike noted. “I think [the Pinstripe Bowl] really showed what we can do when we set our minds to it...I think that momentum has really helped us this offseason...we understand that if we grind, we do what we’re supposed to do, we prepare, then we can match up with anybody.”
We all saw flashes of greatness from Northwestern last season. But only flashes. For Fitzgerald & Co. to get where they want to go, those flashes of brilliance can't come and go; there needs to be a sustained excellence. A big part of that will be a fast start to the season.