"Yeah. You better believe it's out there," their coach Pat Fitzgerald will say when asked if his team recognizes and discusses that possibility.
"That's the main goal right now," echoed wide receiver Demetrius Fields when asked about a bowl. "We're taking it one game at a time. But that's definitely where we want to be in the future. That's the main talk."
* Last Saturday, just minutes after his 'Cats had defeated Rice, Fitzgerald emanated palpable emotion when he said, "I'm looking forward, actually, to getting back on the field. I don't want this season to end." The feeling he manifested in that moment got us wondering, and so we later asked if it was a result of this team's tenacity, of its ability to battle back from the brink. He nodded affirmatively as that question was finished, but then noted there was more to it. The seniors on this team, he noted, comprised the initial class signed to scholarships while he was a head coach.
"The whole group," he then said, "is the first group that we've kind of gone through this whole circus with, for the lack of a better term. The whole gamut with all the guys. Each one of the seniors has a unique story and obviously you'd like to prolong the life of that team, of each team. But especially with this group, yeah."
* The 'Cats, of course, no longer stunk when Fitzgerald's playing career ended and this weekend his last team, the 1996 team, will gather to celebrate the 15th anniversary of its Big Ten championship. Among the some 40 expected to attend the reunion is Gary Barnett, the coach of that team, which is why we asked Fitzgerald how he was shaped by a man who is still a touchstone for him. "I think how he shaped me most as a person is he was very patient with me," he replied. "I think he allowed me to grow up from a little snot-nosed punk to I guess a young man. For that I'll be forever grateful. He let me learn, he let me grow, and then gave me obviously all the tools to learn how to lead. The staff that he had here I thought were great people. They cared about all of us.
"His coaching methodology I think is very similar to Walk (the late Randy Walker) from the standpoint that I just firmly believe in developing players. That's what I felt like happened in my experience here as an undergrad. Every resource that was afforded to us as Wildcats was given to us by the coaching staff. That's something I carry over, just being player-centered and player-focused and hopefully helping them be the best they can be. I really bought in when Coach Barnett said to me, 'The experience here at Northwestern is going to take you where you can't take yourself.' I try to continue to have that be the mindset behind what our coaching staff tries to do."
* This answer came to a question about his defense and its confidence and whether it has grown as its play has improved. But, really, it relates more to Fitzgerald the player and to his own coaching methodology. For here he said, "You make a few plays, it's chicken and the egg, right? Success or confidence, confidence or success. I don't know. I was one of those guys, even though I was a terrible player my first two years, I still thought I was pretty good, and my last two years, I thought I was the best player in the world. So I think you've got to have a little bit of a swagger, you've got to trust and believe in yourself.
"I heard a long time ago, you move toward and become like what you think about the most. I think that's one of the best attitudes you can take in life. If you think you're pretty good, you are, and if you think you stink, you do. That's why I always talk to our guys about being real careful about who they listen to and where they put their attitude and the approach they take. It should be very business-like, but you've got to believe in yourself. You've got to look yourself in the mirror and you've got to believe in what you're doing and how you're preparing is going to lead you to be a very successful person. Then, hopefully, what will follow is being a successful player."
* As for the weekend: The Gopher stud is MarQueis Gray, their 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior quarterback. He is their leading rusher, averaging 71 ypg, but as a thrower is suspect, completing just 51.7 percent of his passes with as many interceptions as touchdowns (seven). Still, says 'Cat linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, "He's the workhorse of their offense. He's big, he's a scrambler. So it's going to come back to the defense doing their job and containing.". . . The Gophs are averaging just 18.1 points and 299.8 yards per-game. Both are a Big Ten worst. Their defense, in turn, is surrendering an average of 34.5 points and 430.9 yards per game. Both are the 11th best (or second worst behind Indiana) in the Big Ten. . . The Gophs' head coach is Jerry Kill, who took over this year after a successful stint at Northern Illinois. Matt Limegrover, their offensive coordinator, was a grad assistant with the 'Cats during Fitzgerald's playing day and the two remain friends. . . Steve Schnur, the 'Cat quarterback in '96, is honorary captain for Saturday's game. . . That team will be hosted at a Friday night reception at the 'Cats' team hotel, which brought this from Fitzgerald: "From the standpoint of camaraderie and chemistry, it's like we never left the locker room. We obviously make fun of each other and that comes, well, we had a tremendous brotherhood." And what did they kid him about back in the day? "Being the worst athlete on the team."
* And finally, Fitzgerald, on the task at hand: "I think you approach each game the same. But as you move forward in the year, it's more the-sand-is-running-out-of-the-hour-glass. We've had a great sense of urgency now for a month, but at the end of the day, so does Minnesota. Jerry's trying to create and build momentum, and he's playing a lot of seniors. Unlike Indiana, Jerry's playing a lot of veterans who've been to bowl games, who've won a lot of games. So we understand the opponent we're facing, a very hungry team. We're going to need to match their intensity and match their hunger."