MADISON – Pat Fitzgerald knows that his Northwestern program is not listed among the Big Ten elite, a place reserved for the teams that win constantly on the football field and on the recruiting trail. It is a place, however, that the former All-American linebacker wants to take his alma mater.
And in order to get there, the Wildcats just have to find ways to win.
“That’s the beautiful thing about our game,” Fitzgerald told his team prior to last Saturday’s victory over Purdue. “They talk about everybody else, and we do the dirty work.”
It hasn’t always looked pretty – few things do when having one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten - but the fact of the matter is the 20th-ranked Wildcats are winning games and coming into Saturday’s road game against No.21 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) with plenty of confidence.
“Continue to win and advance,” said Fitzgerald. “This is a playoff mentality.”
November has a much different feel for Northwestern (8-2, 4-2) than the past two seasons. Going 10-3 and winning a bowl game for the first time in 64 years in 2012, the Wildcats lost seven of their final eight games in 2013 to miss a bowl game and stumbled through another five-win 2014 season.
It’s been a completely different story this season. The Wildcats arguably have the conference’s two most impressive nonconference wins, a home victory over then-No.21 Stanford and a road win at Duke, and have found the formula for winning close game, winning the last three by an average of 3.7 points per game.
After going 3-9 the last two years in games decided by 10 points of fewer, Northwestern is 6-0 this season.
“They've been a good team for a long stretch,” said Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst. “You throw on the tape, and you see it. We've got to have a great week of preparation, and it's going to be a heck of a game for us.”
The formula for the Cats this season has been simple: win with defense and the ground game. Led by former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern ranks in the top half in the conference in every major defensive category, including fourth in scoring defense (17.8 points per game) despite giving up 78 points in consecutive losses.
“I think the world of him as a football coach and as a person,” Chryst said of Hankwitz. “I think there is no doubt they're playing well on defense … I think the strength is that they've got a very good scheme, and I think their players know it. I think they've got good players. Good players and a good scheme, and I think they're playing with confidence.”
According to defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Northwestern tries to pin the inside defenders to eliminate the defensive ends. When teams try to throw extra bodies to the outside, the Wildcats take advantage of over pursuing defenders with sophomore tailback Justin Jackson cutting things to the inside.
The same problem happened for Wisconsin against Iowa, giving up 144 yards on the ground and 125 yards to tailback Jordan Canzeri, who is a patient runner like Jackson. So far this season, Jackson is averaging 103.3 yards per game and already ranks eighth on the school’s all-time rushing list as a sophomore.
“He’s tough,” Fitzgerald said of Jackson, who has helped Northwestern run for at least 170 yards in eight games this season, including six over 200. “He’s just a physical, tough kid. He’s turning into a young man and just loves to compete. He’s been durable and just loved to play. He’s kind of a throwback back.”
A prime example would be the 21-14 home victory over lowly Purdue. Despite committing three turnovers, Northwestern executed defensively, holding the Boilermakers scoreless off those miscues, and relied on Jackson’s 116 yards and the game-winning touchdown with 4:37 left in the game.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we got the job done,” said Fitzgerald.
With both teams fighting for bowl positioning (Wisconsin still has an outside chance of winning the Big Ten West title) and Northwestern knocking off the Badgers’ last season, Chryst isn’t downplaying the challenge and opportunity facing them on Saturday.
“Both teams have earned the right (for a bowl game) by the way we have both been playing,” said Chryst. “It's two 8-2 teams … The only thing you can focus on is what you're involved in and you can control. The best way to do that is just by focusing on each day. I think we will look back at this game, and I think it will be -- I don't want to say ‘big’ implications -- but very concrete implications.”