"We've been very business-like the past month," he said.
Just as it did against Indiana, Nebraska and Rice, NU took care of business against Minnesota, jumping out to a quick lead and holding on for a 28-13 win. The Cats are now bowl eligible for the fifth straight year, but for Fitzgerald, that's nothing to celebrate.
"To get bowl eligible five straight years ago is pretty special, but we learned five years ago that 6-6 can keep you home," he said, "so we're going to do everything we can to win this football game."
To escape from 6-6, NU will have to beat Michigan State, a 9-2 team that just clinched the Legends Division with a 55-3 win over Indiana. Statistically, this game isn't that important for the Spartans, nor is it as important as this last win for the Cats.
But this game does mean something to Fitzgerald and his players, who are playing with the sense of urgency on a team making a title game push.
NU isn't focusing on the what-ifs—there are plenty in a season where the five losses could have easily been five wins. It's now focused on the future with a team that looks entirely different from the one that lost to Penn State a month ago.
Statistically, the Cats didn't have their best game of the season—Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray and running back Duane Bennett each ran for over 100 yard—but they got the job done, and as Fitzgerald said, "At the end of the day, stats are for losers."
"The defense showed up and probably won the game for us again," quarterback Dan Persa said. "When it mattered and we needed to go get a score at the beginning of the fourth quarter, we got it done."
Neither of those things happened early in the year, as one game after another, defensive breakdowns and offensive collapses caused the losses to pile up.
But those days are long gone.
We all knew that this team could compete with anyone—it did in the first half of every game—but we now know that it can win games, and that's the most important stat of all.
"To go out and take control of game, and then stay in command entire game, that shows the maturity of our football team," Fitzgerald said.
That maturity was missing early in the year, especially from the seniors of this veteran-laden team, who seemingly disappeared under pressure. Now the seniors are starting to step up late in games.
It's been a tale of two seasons for NU, which knew that anything other than a big winning streak would mean the most disappointing season of the past five years.
"We knew our backs were against a wall and the only way we were going to get where we wanted to be was to fight our way out of it," Fitzgerald said.
The Cats are still fighting, and the "second season" is hardly over. There's still plenty left to play for—a sure bowl berth and the program's first bowl win since 1949.
Fitzgerald said his typical "24-hour rule" to enjoy the win is already over; there's still a whole lot of business to take care of.