The schedule says that the 'Cats' Saturday meeting with Michigan State is the last game of their regular season, is the last Big Ten game for their 25 seniors, is also the last time those 25 will be playing at Ryan Field. But early in their preparation for the Spartans, recalled Pat Fitzgerald, he told them, "Instead of looking at it as the end, take the opportunity for what it is."
And what is it?
"Just part of the journey. It's another week," he said. "Now, it's 'coach talk' because they're going to (consider it the end), especially the seniors. But I think at the end of the day, knowing that we have an opportunity to play in the postseason, this isn't the end. It's a little bit different feeling. So just enjoy it, enjoy it for what it is. Our seniors will have a lot of family here, but we've got to take that passion, that emotion and use it for 60 minutes once the ball goes up in the air. It's a challenge."
"We're well aware it's not the end," senior running back Jacob Schmidt would later say. "We've got one game to go in the postseason and obviously if we can get the win on Saturday we guarantee that and hopefully it's a little better bowl than if we would lose. So I think he wants us to treat it like any other week. We realize it's Senior Day and that it's our last Big Ten game, it's our last game at home. So it's going to be an emotional day, but we've got to find a way to focus and treat it like any other week and come out and execute our game plan."
THERE AT THE START:
This year's seniors have five wins over ranked opponents and have been bowl eligible in each of their years at the school and have run up more wins than any of the classes that preceded them. Those are some of the reasons Fitzgerald has a special affinity for this group, but there is more. Each of these seniors has already graduated or will graduate on time. "It's the whole package," he will say when asked what he likes about them, and here he sounded very much like the proud papa.
"In the classroom, unbelievable. On the field, the most successful group in our program's history. Then their generosity, the way they've been involved in the culture here on campus and giving back to the community. They've raised the bar, they've set the expectations for the future. The neat thing is we have two special opportunities left and the first one obviously is this Saturday. So I don't think the last chapter's been written yet. But we got the pen in our hand. Let's see what we'll write."
Fitzgerald, not surprisingly, was asked often about his seniors in the days just passed, and on an occasion separate from the one just above, he echoed, "They've raised the bar. They've raised the expectations in the program. Every future group will strive to achieve what they've achieved. They've set it high. But, you know, we've done a lot of good things, but we haven't done a lot of great things yet. We've got a great opportunity on Saturday. What a great way to put an exclamation point to a wonderful four or five years."
Does he really think they've raised the bar higher than his own senior class, which won one Big Ten championship outright and shared another?
"From a consistency standpoint, yeah, absolutely," he said. "Shoot. We were terrible my first two years. Terrible. All these guys have done is won. Again. We've done good things. We haven't done great things. That group had two great years. Fifteen-and-one in the Big Ten, that's kicking a lot of (butt). But we got two great opportunities and I think that would be a strong exclamation point."
A SENIOR MOMENT OF A DIFFERENT KIND:
Fitzgerald laughed out loud when asked about his final game at Ryan Filed as a player. "I don't remember anything about my Senior Day. I'll be honest with you," he then said. "We won, I think we beat Purdue. I think. (They did.) I remember since I've been coach. It's a lot different. When I get a chance to take that picture with each young man and each family on Saturday, it takes you back to when we first identified the young man, then all the steps through recruiting, then being in their living room at some point. So it's a little bit different when it's in that team concept than it is from the individual aspect."
Will he have to flip a switch then after going through all the Saturday ceremonies?
"Nah, I'm all right. Once the ball goes up in the air, I've got a job to do. You've already thought it out through the course of the week on how things might go, then you get ready to adjust as the game unfolds. That's the fun part of what we do."
In 2006, Fitzgerald's first season as their coach, the 'Cats rolled to a 27-16 win over Illinois on Senior Day. On the Senior Days that have followed, they've defeated Indiana by three and Illinois by 17 and No. 17 Wisconsin by two and No. 13 Iowa by four. "The guys have used the emotion of that day in a positive way and not let it be a distraction," he would say when asked about that unblemished record. "They've really relished their last opportunity to play Big Ten football and their last opportunity to play in Ryan Field."
"We've always had something to play for on Senior Day, and this year's no different," added Jack DiNardo, the senior defensive tackle. "We need to get that seventh win to guarantee to go to a bowl or to improve what bowl we will go to. So there's been this sense of urgency to play well on Senior Day and this year's no different."
CALLING UP THE MEMORIES:
Last Monday his hometown paper called and interviewed Jacob Schmidt, the former walk-on from Rhinelander, Wis., who has blossomed into one of the steadiest 'Cats of them all. "That really made me think about my last four-and-a-half years and why I came here and the journey I've been on the whole time," he would say 24 hours later. "So it's going to be an emotional day, my parents'll be on the field, I'll have a lot of family in the stands. But hopefully we can treat it like another day."
Does he have any special memories?
"I've got a couple special memories, one being the first career touchdown I had against Towson in '09. My grandpa passed away the January before, and he always was on me about getting that touchdown, when am I going to get that touchdown. He unfortunately wasn't there to see it, but that was for him and that's a memory I'll have my whole life. From there, just being with this group of guys, beating a lot of ranked teams, beating Wisconsin at home was huge for me too obviously being from the state. Hopefully we'll make a couple more memories here at the end of the year. But it's been a great four-and-a-half, five years."
Schmidt, on how time has moved since he showed up as a freshman: "In my mind, it seems like yesterday. My body thinks otherwise."
The 'Cats jumped out to a 17-point lead over the Spartans last October at Ryan Field and, at fourth quarter's start, were still up 10. But then, late in that game, they were done in by a fake punt and finally fell by a dozen. "There's a bad taste in our mouths still," senior safety Brian Peters would say when asked about that game.
"I just finished watching it again," said DiNardo. "It definitely left a bad taste in our mouth last year and, seeing it this year, you see a lot of things we should have done better. We do feel we let that one slip away being up 10 points in the fourth quarter. We really needed to put that one away, and I think this year's team, we are finishing games now. We're playing a lot better in the fourth quarter lately. That'll be one of the keys Saturday, to start fast and then to finish."
The Spartans, of course, have already wrapped up the Legends Division title and secured a spot in the Big Ten's first championship game. But they are looking for their 10th win of the year. . . Their total defense is the best in the conference, surrendering an average of just 257.3 yards per game. It also leads the league in rushing defense (101.2 ypg) and is second both pass (156.1 ypg) and scoring (15.3 ppg) defense. . . On offense they are again choreographed by quarterback Kirk Cousins, who only seems as if he has been there forever. He is 204-of-319 (63.9 percent) for 2,521 yards and 19 touchdowns with just five interceptions. His big targets are B.J. Cunningham, who has 61 receptions, and Keshawn Martin, who has 10 less. "Then," adds Fitzgerald, "they play two, three running backs and they throw the ball to both tight ends. So they spread it around weapon wise.". . . The honorary 'Cat captain for the game is Yankee manager Joe Girardi, which prompted Fitzgerald to remember the time he and his wife visited him in Yankee Stadium. "Stacey and I are sitting in the dugout shooting the breeze with him before the game. I'm talking to Joe and she's watching (shortstop Derek) Jeter walk by. I'm like, 'I'm your husband, you know?'"
Junior tackle Brian Mulroe: "This Saturday's going to be huge. Everyone's going to lay it on the line for the seniors."