Northwestern relishes underdog role in Big Ten football title game matchup with Ohio State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State for the second time in three seasons, with a 3-9 campaign in between.

Pat Fitzgerald knew change was needed after the 2019 season, as painful as it was to implement.

Since becoming Wildcats coach at age 31 in 2006 after the sudden death of Randy Walker, Fitzgerald had valued coaching staff stability. Soon-retiring defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz had been in place since 2008. The same for offensive coordinator Mick McCall.

But last year, Northwestern’s offense devolved from plodding to almost nonexistent, largely because of horrid quarterback play. The Wildcats averaged fewer than 17 points per game in falling to 3-9 a year after losing to Ohio State in the 2018 Big Ten championship game. After the season, Fitzgerald fired McCall.

“You form really deep bonds and deep relationships (among coaches),” Fitzgerald said, “and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. It was just time for a change in leadership, and we made the decision to make a change, and you never want to do that.”

In the old days, the Wildcats accepted mediocrity, or worse. Northwestern was the Big Ten athletic laughingstock for decades, the opposite of its reputation academically. It was as if it accepted playing the role for the conference of the walk-on at the end of the bench because it raised the team grade-point average.

As a star linebacker in the mid-1990s, Fitzgerald was part of the team that changed the Wildcats’ culture and expectations by fulfilling coach Gary Barnett’s seemingly impossible pledge to “Take the Purple to Pasadena.”

Northwestern football has been relevant ever since. In 2018, the program opened a gleaming state-of-the-art athletic facility on the shore of Lake Michigan.

That’s not to say the Wildcats are trying to be like the rest of their Big Ten brethren, including Ohio State, which they will play Saturday in the Big Ten championship game. Northwestern is the only private school in the conference. Its undergraduate enrollment of about 8,000 is by far the smallest.

The Wildcats generally don’t sign blue-chip prospects, favoring developmental players who fit their system. Northwestern recruited OSU quarterback Justin Fields, but Fitzgerald accepted that he had little chance to sign him once Fields became ranked among the country’s top players.

Even more than most coaches, Fitzgerald is the face of Northwestern football. He combines chip-on-the-shoulder attitude and self-deprecation. He and his team had a field day when college football analyst Joey Galloway likened the Wildcats to middle-age announcer Rece Davis of ESPN earlier this season.

“I know there's some media members that don't think we should still be in this (Big Ten title) game, even though we went undefeated (in the West Division),” Fitzgerald said Sunday.

Yet there’s little snarl to him. In news conferences, he refers to questioners by name and responds to some as if they’re old friends.

When a reporter asked him Sunday about the challenge of finding Ohio State weaknesses to probe, Fitzgerald chuckled, saying, “If you've got any answers, text me.”

He joked about guzzling coffee and being grayer by the end of the week. No. 14 Northwestern (6-1) is a three-touchdown underdog on Saturday, and there’s little doubt Fitzgerald relishes that role.

“We're gonna have fun,” Fitzgerald said. “That's not negotiable. I believe in that three-letter word. If you're not having fun, I don't know why you're doing this, especially this year (because) it's been such a challenge.”

Fitzgerald remains a linebacker at heart and his team reflects that. Northwestern’s defense is fundamentally sound with a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. The Wildcats rank second nationally in points allowed per game (14.6).

Quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) has been integral to Northwestern's success with his guile and leadership after transferring into the program from Indiana.

On offense, the Wildcats remain stodgy. They average 25.3 points, which ranks 90th nationally. But that’s still a significant uptick from last year. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana, has provided steady leadership and competence.

Northwestern hasn’t won a Big Ten title since sharing it in 2000.

“I’m not gonna lie to you,” Fitzgerald said of an upset Saturday night, “It would be a hell of a ride home on I-65.”

Fitzgerald just turned 46, so he’s not that young for a coach anymore. But youthful enthusiasm remains.

“As someone that won two Big Ten championships, I loved every moment of it,” he said of his playing days. “If could go back, I’d do it a million times harder and have a million times more fun. That's the way that we'll approach the week. We've got nothing to lose. Let's go cut it loose and go have fun and enjoy the moment.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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Ohio State vs. Northwestern

When: noon Saturday

TV: Ch. 28

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)