With Fitz, NU flashes mental readiness

He's mixed up the practice schedule, throwing in distractions. Now, Pat Fitzgerald couldn't be more pleased with Northwestern's focus heading into the Western Michigan matchup.

You're often exposed to clichés as they regard "mental toughness."

Players and coaches will "never look past opponents" or "respect (‘x') quality of their game."

That could apply to Northwestern, which begins a two-week stretch against Western Michigan and Maine—two games that should result in easy victories.

Pat Fitzgerald, however, had an interesting plan to keep the Wildcats focused. His players don't begin class until Sept. 24, leaving ample time to experiment.

"You guys haven't noticed what I'm doing here: a lot of distractions in practice," Fitzgerald said on Wednesday. "The last two weeks were over at Lakeside Field, early yesterday later today. Little bit of this, little bit of that.

"We're trying to challenge their focus at every twist and turn. We haven't had the same practice structure yet."

Fitzgerald refused to shy away from difficulties in this non-conference season. The slate began in Berkeley, against Sonny Dykes' difficult "Bear Raid" attack, with NU fighting every injury imaginable. It continued against Syracuse, which was no pushover opponent; the Cats simply played well in nearly every phase.

The head coach never dishes out unnecessary praise. After practice, he'll often seem lukewarm about the team's outing, pointing out some holes in preparation. This week, he offered full confidence.

"It's been outstanding," Fitzgerald said of his team's outlook. "This is a very focused, very hunter-mentality team right now. These guys have an understanding of what it takes to prepare."

The schedule poses natural challenges. There are more than three weeks left until Ohio State arrives in town for the most anticipated game in program history. Until then, NU will need to hold its ground–and then some–against lighter opponents.

Northwestern earned its reputation for "mental toughness" and those ensuing clichés, yes. See it on the field, and in their practices, and you'll leave knowing that Fitzgerald and his team will head into any Saturday geared up for the game.

Asked about how the practice schedule changes impact his team, Fitzgerald pulled out his trademark quickness:

"It doesn't matter," he said. "If you focus on yourself, all these things we're doing, they don't matter.

"Where you're ranked doesn't matter. Who you're playing doesn't matter. It matters what you do and how you do it."

So Fitzgerald played the quiet mental games. We didn't notice what he was doing there.

Why? This team, in the face of adversity, hasn't given an inch.


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