The stakes are high. Desperately needing its first conference win to still become bowl eligible, Northwestern faces Michigan for the first time since the Roy Roundtree debacle last fall and plays for the first time since officially shutting down Venric Mark for the year. NU has beaten the Wolverines just once in its last eight tries, and both teams will be looking to salvage disappointing 2013 seasons this weekend.
But Pat Fitzgerald didn't talk much football with reporters after practice wrapped up Wednesday, and Northwestern isn't just focused on the outcome of the game Saturday. When the scrimmage session was over, the Wildcats spoke with Norbie Lara, an 11-year Army veteran, Purple Heart recipient and current member of the Wounded Warrior Project, before chanting the fight song and heading to the locker room.
"It was incredibly inspirational," Fitzgerald said. "Our warriors are out there defending our freedom, while we get to sit here in a 72-degree indoor practice facility and talk about football."
Regardless of uniform controversies, Northwestern's partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project officially kicks off this week. Veterans will be talking to the team in anticipation of kickoff, and the Cats' American flag jerseys will be auctioned off after the game, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Project, which focuses on helping former soldiers assimilate back to everyday life.
"We've got things in perspective here in our program every day. We don't take anything for granted," Fitz said.
Northwestern will also welcome the family of Otto Graham as honorary captains for the game, celebrating the launch of the Otto Graham Society, a multi-year fundraising initiative for the athletics program. Fitzgerald called Graham "arguably the best athlete ever at Northwestern," and noted that an already special weekend gets even bigger with Graham's family in attendance.
It's not just lip service for Fitz — the coach wore his own American flag hoodie and brushed off questions about Devin Gardner in favor of ones about Norbie Lara. The team preaches going 1-0 every week, but this week that will go beyond the score of the Wildcats and Wolverines.