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Three takeaways from Northwestern’s Big Ten Championship Week press conferences

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The ‘Cats respect their opponent but are playing to win.

After a whirlwind football season that has propelled Northwestern to the top of the Big Ten West for the second time in three years, the Wildcats are once again preparing to battle with Ohio State in Indy for a conference title. As they begun their preparations for the Buckeyes, Pat Fitzgerald, Riley Lees, Peyton Ramsey, Greg Newsome II and Blake Gallagher spoke with reporters about the regular season behind them and the challenges ahead. Here are three takeaways from their collective media availabilities.

The Wildcats respect Ohio State

A top storyline all season long has been the ongoing fight between Northwestern and its critics. While various media members (and a few opponents) might not have much respect for the ‘Cats, the players and Fitz made it clear that they do not share such sentiments for this week’s opponents from Columbus.

The compliments for the Buckeyes started with Pat Fitzgerald’s opening statement when he disclosed that he voted for Ohio State’s Ryan Day for Big Ten Coach of the Year. But the praise from Fitz didn’t stop there. In his answers to a variety of questions, he commended Justin Fields, whom he called “a heck of a football player and just a terrific young man,” the Buckeyes’ defensive front seven, which he called “beyond physical” and “violent,” and the OSU program as a whole, which he said has earned the reputation of being the Big Ten’s flagship football team.

On the players’ side, similar attitudes toward the Buckeyes were expressed by Peyton Ramsey, who particularly highlighted the Buckeyes’ defense as “really talented, big and physical.” On the offensive end of things, Newsome II noted OSU’s depth. When asked if there were any Buckeyes he and the secondary were focused on stopping this week, Newsome responded, “that’s the thing about Ohio State, they’ve got a bunch of players.”

This isn’t last year’s Northwestern team

While those who have followed the Wildcats throughout the year are sure to have noticed the many differences between this year’s NU team and the 3-9 squad from last season, such growth was highlighted again during the press conferences in light of their blowout 52-3 loss to the Buckeyes in 2019.

Fitz said the biggest change has occurred at quarterback, where he said things have been “much more efficient” with Ramsey at the helm. He touched on the team’s health and mindset being in a better place than it was last season. He also alluded to the decision to fire then-offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who was eventually replaced with Mike Bajakian, as a move that’s “not ever the desired goal” but ultimately one that moved the program forward.

Gallagher echoed Fitz’s sentiments on the team having an enhanced mindset, saying that the defense specifically is “playing with a lot more confidence.” Tangibly, Newsome II highlighted the team’s 16 forced turnovers in seven games as “a huge difference” from last year’s total of 13 in 12 games.

New championship game, new mentality

As was the case during their last trip to Indianapolis, the Wildcats are primed to face a heavily-favored Ohio State team this Saturday. That said, Northwestern seems to be taking a different approach toward the game as underdogs this time around.

“I think last time, we had the approach that we were happy to win the West,” Lees said. “But I think our goals have superseded that and our expectations are to win the Big Ten Championship. And that’s going to be our mindset going into this game.”

Lees was backed up by his quarterback Ramsey, who was an Indiana Hoosier at the time of the 2018 Big Ten Championship and doesn’t have a frame of reference for what NU’s mindset was in that game. Still, Ramsey was confident that the Wildcats’ mindset was up to the moment this year. “There is this sense of urgency that we’re not just going there to compete in this game,” he said. “We’re going to win it.”