Picture the scene. I’m sure you remember it well. It’s Sept. 15, and Northwestern just dropped its second consecutive game, this time in embarrassing fashion to a lowly Akron team. Clayton Thorson conceded three touchdowns to the Akron defense, and Northwestern looks like a completely lost team. Disjointed on offense, sloppy on defense, even lackluster on special teams. It’s not pretty.
Now, fast forward to Sept. 24. As Northwestern prepares for the meat of their conference schedule with Michigan coming to town, the team is dealt a devastating blow. Jeremy Larkin is retiring from football due to cervical stenosis. Northwestern is headed into a tough conference schedule without its best offensive talent or a fully healthy quarterback.
Jump to today. Northwestern has clinched the Big Ten West title for the first time in the program’s history, with two weeks remaining in the season. It has defeated Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, in addition to two tight losses to top five football teams in Notre Dame and Michigan. Northwestern will be playing for a spot in the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of them all. How did this happen?
“I think it’s the culture that Fitz instills,” Tommy Doles said. “The recruiting, the guys here, it’s easy to be drawn to this program. There’s a great culture with everyone here but it all starts with what Fitz has done.”
This Northwestern team isn’t the most talented team in the conference, and it probably isn’t the most talented team in the West (it ranks 77th in S&P+, behind five Big Ten West foes). But, Northwestern has a coach that consistently does more with less. It has a talent composite that puts it at fourth in the division, meaning that over the last four years Fitz has recruited the fourth-best team in the West, rankings wise. Obviously, recruiting rankings aren’t fully accurate of how anything will play out, but there is a big gap to cover for Northwestern. Thankfully for Northwestern fans, Fitzgerald can overcome that gap.
It starts with the discipline that Fitzgerald imparts on the team. Northwestern is the least penalized group in the country, giving up a mere three penalties per game. The average Division One college football team doubles that total. To put that into perspective, Northwestern is surrendering 45 fewer yards per game to its opponents than over half of the nation’s teams. Over the course of a season, that consistent slight edge in every game plays a big role, and that advantage can be tied directly to good coaching.
Beyond that, Northwestern’s play in critical and unique scenarios all year would make Bill Belichick proud. A large part of quality situational football comes down to coaching. Take a midseason bout with Nebraska as an example. Down two scores with four minutes to play, Nebraska had a 95 percent chance to win the game. Northwestern engineered two clutch drives to tie the game up, leading to an overtime victory.
Against Rutgers, Northwestern led by three with over six minutes to go. The offense was able to methodically take the ball down the field and run out the clock without giving Rutgers a single crack at a game winning drive.
“Coach Fitz always puts us in a position to succeed,” Doles explained. “It’s all about executing in the fourth quarter, like he says.”
Another example of Northwestern’s stellar situational football is its “bend don’t break” defense. Opposing offenses have entered the red zone 27 times this season. Over 50 percent of the time, they’ve left the red zone with three or fewer points. This allows the defense to compensate for the offense’s struggles in the kicking game, as Northwestern can afford to be more aggressive on offense, scoring at a slower rate but getting more points.
Conversely, take stats out of the equation. Look at this Northwestern team with a holistic approach. It has dealt with serious injury issues at the running back position, in the secondary, and even to their kickers. Yet, at no point did the team skip a beat, due to the system of competitive depth that Fitzgerald has injected into the squad.
“Like Coach Fitz always talks about, it’s next man up,” linebacker Blake Gallagher said, “when guys get out there on the field, they’re always going to be ready to go.”
It’s true. There have been a countless number of moments in the season where players that were not expected to play had to step in and perform. Against Iowa, for a large portion of the second half, Northwestern’s top three cornerbacks were sidelined. Redshirt freshman Cam Ruiz was forced to play a big role, as well as Roderick Campbell and Alonzo Mayo, who were both forced into significant action on defense for the first time all season. With a Big Ten West title on the line, they performed as a Fitzgerald-led group would, conceding only 135 yards and one score through the air.
This season is far from finished. There are two regular season games remaining in addition to the Big Ten Championship game. Fitz will tell you that he’s focused on Minnesota, but the excitement surrounding the December Big Ten finale is palpable at Northwestern. The school just announced that they would give any undergraduate student that wanted to attend the game a free ticket and free transportation.
If I had read you that sentence in September, you would’ve laughed in my face, but because of the job that Fitzgerald has done, it’s a reality. No matter how this season ends, the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats will represent one of the finest coaching jobs in Pat Fitzgerald’s career.