2006 Big Ten Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

We continue our look at the Big Ten and OSU's 2006 opponents with this look at Northwestern, where OSU will visit Nov. 11. The NU program was rocked by the death this summer of head coach Randy Walker. Former NU star Pat Fitzgerald, 31, was tabbed to replace Walker. Click here for more.

Here is the 11th in a Bucknuts.com series on Ohio State's 2006 football opponents as well as a preview for the Big Ten in 2006. We continue with the Nov. 11 game against Northwestern.

Northwestern

* Date, Time: Sat., Nov. 11, time TBA (seems likely to be at 3:30 p.m. on ABC).

* Location: Ryan Field; Evanston, Ill.

* Last Year, Bowl: 7-5, lost to UCLA in Sun Bowl. Big Ten: 5-3/third (tie).

* Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (first year at NU).

* Returning Starters: 17. Offense (8): C Trevor Rees, LT Dylan Thiry, LG Joe Tripodi, RG Ryan Keenan, RT Austin Matthews, WR Shaun Herbert, TE Erryn Cobb, RB Tyrell Sutton. Defense (8): DE Kevin Mims, DT John Gill, DE Mark Koehn, MLB Adam Kadela, WLB Nick Roach, SS Brian Heinz, FS Brendan Smith, CB Marquice Cole. Specialists (1): K Joel Howells.

* Big Ten Championships: 8, last shared title in 2000.

* Rose Bowls: 2, last appearance in 1995.

* BCS Bids: None.

* National Championships (Rissman/Rockne, 1924-35; Associated Press, 1936-2005): None.

* Series Vs. Ohio State: OSU leads the all-time series 56-14-1, including 24-6-1 in Evanston. Northwestern shocked OSU 33-27 in overtime in 2004 in Evanston, snapping a 24-game losing streak to OSU and notching its first home win over the Buckeyes since 1958. Last year, the Buckeyes crushed NU 48-7.

* Schedule: Aug. 31, at Miami (Ohio); Sept. 9, New Hampshire; Sept. 16, Eastern Michigan; Sept. 22, at Nevada; Sept. 30, at Penn State; Oct. 7, at Wisconsin; Oct. 14, Purdue; Oct. 21, Michigan State; Oct. 28, at Michigan; Nov. 4, at Iowa; Nov. 11, Ohio State; Nov. 18, Illinois.

* Outlook: Obviously, the Northwestern program was rocked to the core with the passing of coach Randy Walker.

Fitzgerald, a former Northwestern standout, was elevated from an assistant coaching position to replace Walker. At 31 years old, Fitzgerald is the youngest head coach in Division I-A. He said it has been hard to replace a guy like Walker under such circumstances.

"It's been a roller coaster, to say the least," Fitzgerald said. "You get a phone call one night and learn you've lost one of your best friends. It's a numbing feeling, total shock. But every day, it's gotten a little better.

"We've all been called to duty with the passing of Coach Walker. We need to make sure we continue his legacy in the right manner. We look forward to the challenge that has been presented to us."

Fitzgerald said following the path Walker blazed for the Wildcats would be important.

"We have a great plan," Fitzgerald said. "Randy wrote it up five years ago. It's how we practice and what we do and what we feel is important. We're not going to change who we are or what we believe in."

Fitzgerald then took a page out of the book of his former coach, Gary Barnett.

"I told the players we want to take the Purple back to Pasadena," he said. "I told them I have nine more fingers for Rose Bowl rings."

The good news on the field is 17 starters return. But NU will need a new QB after the departure of four-year starter Brett Basanez. Redshirt freshman Mike Kafka outdueled sophomore C.J. Bacher to win the battle to replace Basanez.

"He showed arm strength, touch, all the throws we ask our quarterback to make," Fitzgerald said. "And we play a game we call razzle-dazzle, when he plays wide receiver, quarterback, defensive back like you would in a back yard. He was extremely impressive."

Sutton (1,474 yards, 16 TDs) had a spectacular first year in the Big Ten.

Roach (77 tackles) and Cole (5 INTs) are two of the top names on a defense that could use an energy boost.

"We've made improvements in just going to practice and coming together as a group," Fitzgerald said. "The first step is that cohesiveness between the players, the coaches and the staff. After last season's Arizona State game (a 52-21 loss), Coach Walker said to all of us in true Randy Walker fashion, ‘We're going to find a way to get through this,' and that is exactly what we're going to do."

* Jerry Rudzinski Says: I remember Fitzgerald playing at Northwestern. He was a gutty guy and he was just a hard worker who got the job done. He's got a bigger title now as the head coach. I like the move of plugging him in there. Northwestern is a little different than Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. They need a spark who could relate to a younger guy and a guy who lives and breathes Northwestern football.

Let's see how he does. But here comes Ohio State and Wisconsin and the rest in the Big Ten. They just keep coming at you in this league.

After 12 years at quarterback, Brett Basanez has moved on. Tyrell Sutton is back after finishing eighth in the country in rushing as a true freshman.

Defensively, they have to get better. Their defensive line was awful. People could run on them. They did create some turnovers, but they need to keep opponents off the scoreboard.

* Steve Helwagen Says: Ohio State will be in the stretch run at this point, hoping they can play Michigan the following week for the Big Ten championship and a shot at the BCS title game. They will not be able to let up against Northwestern, especially at Evanston.

OSU got rid of some of the bad taste from the 2004 overtime loss at NU with last year's lopsided win in Columbus.

Of course, the passing of Randy Walker will be discussed all season long in relation to Northwestern. That was a terrible tragedy for him to pass away at age 52. What a sad story for his family, Northwestern football, the university community and the Big Ten in general.

Stepping into that opening was Pat Fitzgerald. He's just 31 years old and may not know what he's getting into. That's a tough situation for a young guy and they have turned to him to lead the ship.

Walker survived at NU by harnessing the human spirit. They found a way to steal games against opponents that had them outmanned – like Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and the rest. Fitzgerald will have to maintain that attitude.

My guess is with a new quarterback they will turn to Sutton to be the leading weapon and grind it out on the ground.

Below are archives of past opponent previews:

Game 1: Northern Illinois

Game 2: Texas

Game 3: Cincinnati

Game 4: Penn State

Game 5: Iowa

Game 6: Bowling Green

Game 7: Michigan State

Game 8: Indiana

Game 9: Minnesota

Game 10: Illinois


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