When Pat Fitzgerald addressed the media after a 33-24 loss in Madison last September, he was a bit fidgety. He was slightly more short-tempered than usual, and his typical sarcasm was more frustrated than jovial.
It was only September, but Fitzgerald knew his team had just dropped a vital game his team after leading at halftime. Less than a month into its season, Wisconsin had dealt Northwestern’s division chances a crippling blow.
There’s no Wisconsin monkey on Fitz’s back. He’s beaten the Badgers three times as Northwestern’s head coach (in eight games), the most recent of which came in 2014 and 2015.
The elusive achievement, rather, has been the division crown, a title the Badgers have owned in three of the four seasons since the Big Ten West began in 2014.
Saturday’s contest between Northwestern and Wisconsin will again be pivotal in the race for the West. Both teams enter the game with one loss in the Big Ten, and both control their own destinies in the conference. The Badgers beat Iowa, who appears to be the other main challenger in the West, and the Wildcats took down Purdue in the season-opener, which looks more and more valuable as the Boilermakers continue to ascend. The winner of this game keeps control of its own fate, and picks up a key tiebreaker against the loser. A win doesn’t guarantee the division title by any means, but it makes it much more likely.
For Wisconsin, this game is business as usual. A win is probably expected, as is another Big Ten Championship appearance.
For Northwestern, this is a program-defining kind of game. No matter how the first month of the season went — with a disappointing loss to Duke and a horrible loss to Akron — Fitzgerald has long said that the Big Ten West is the next step for the program. For as solid as NU has been in recent years with 10-win seasons and bowl victories, the Wildcats haven’t been in the driver’s seat in the West this late in the season. Beating Wisconsin would put them there. Northwestern would be 5-1 in the league, with wins over Purdue and Wisconsin and a game against Iowa still on the schedule.
On the day he signed a 10-year contract extension in the spring of 2017, Fitzgerald called the extension a “commitment to a championship.”
“I think we’ve been close, but close isn’t good enough,” Fitzgerald said that day. “We’ve had multiple 10-win seasons and some that even when we got to nine we had a chance to backdoor in. But it’s not about talk, it’s about putting together the action.”
Saturday is a day, more than nearly any other day, when that action needs to be there. It’s a day when Northwestern can take a major step forward as a team and as a program by knocking off its biggest competition and getting closer than it’s ever been to coming through on that championship commitment.
A win wouldn’t erase the disappointing losses and inconsistencies that came before it this season. It wouldn’t mean Fitzgerald is necessarily a better coach than he was before, or the players are better than they were before. What a win would do is put Northwestern one notch closer to where it hasn’t been — and where it says it needs to be.
Fitzgerald offered some expected coachspeak at his press conference this week. Asked about the magnitude of the game, he said he’s focused on getting through each day of practice.
As he did last season, though, Fitzgerald knows deep down this isn’t just any other game. For his team, his program and his goals, this is the game.