* That was Sunday's good news. The more sobering news was that senior corner Jordan Mabin, who hurt his shoulder early in the regular-season finale against Michigan State, will miss the game after undergoing surgery. "I prefer right now to not talk about his injury," Fitzgerald said after making that announcement. "I haven't had a chance to talk to him since his surgery face-to-face. He went home when he had surgery after the season. The next time we get together I'll talk a little bit more about that."
"It's unfortunate for him," senior safety Brian Peters soon added. "After going through four years completely unharmed, to have something like this happen to him. . .we all feel for him. It's just rough stuff, especially for a senior captain."
* Redshirt freshman Daniel Jones replaced Mabin in that Spartan game and had a rough introduction to Big Ten football, which is why Fitzgerald was asked what he would do now to make up for the loss of his senior. "We practice. Compete," he said simply. "We'll have somebody out there covering, I promise you that. We'll play with 11. As the game went along, I thought D.J. competed really well. The one touchdown against Sparty wasn't his fault. But it'll be a competitive month, figuring out who's going to be out there and in the nickel."
* The Chicagoland area is always the 'Cats' recruiting priority. But they do have three coaches combing Texas (as well as Ohio) for talent, and they do have five Houstonians on the current roster, and they have had as many as 10 players from that city on the team in the past. No wonder, then, that Fitzgerald will say, "This is a great opportunity for us with three of our last four bowl games in the state of Texas. San Antonio, Dallas and now Houston. It's great. I'll be at the banquet on Thursday, the Houston Touchdown Club banquet. I go every year."
Will playing in Houston help recruiting there in the future?
"Time will tell. But in our opinion, just talking as a staff when we found out, we're excited about the opportunity from the standpoint of exposure. Those (Houston high school) coaches can have a chance to watch us practice, some of those coaches have come up and watched us in spring ball. For them to have a chance to watch us in their backyard, it'll be fun to be around those guys. So I think it's a great opportunity, without a doubt."
* No surprise, then, that the 'Cats have prospects from Houston in their recruiting sites. Nor was it a surprise to hear that Fitzgerald, by early Sunday evening, had contacted some of them on Facebook.
* Quarterback Dan Persa, who will finally get a chance to play in a bowl game, said, "The guys from Houston always brag about it, and everybody else is pretty much sick hearing about it. Just kidding. It's a good spot and we're really looking forward to getting down there."
And which of those Houstonians brag the most?
"(Linebacker) Dave Nwabuisi. Hands down," said Peters.
And what's he say about it?
"'Greatest place on earth.' Something along those lines," said Peters with a chuckle.
* Five years ago, when Peters and Mabin and Persa and countless others were redshirt freshmen, the 'Cats went 6-6 and were shut out of a bowl game. Now, again 6-6, they were picked to fill the sixth of the eight bowl slots affiliated with the Big Ten. "To not go to a bowl game to, what, the sixth bowl says a lot about how much we've progressed as a program in our time here," said Peters. "Now we're looking to take the next step and get a bowl victory."
"I think the brand of football we play is pretty entertaining. We've been pretty salty in bowl games," said Fitzgerald when asked about his team's attraction. "We haven't won in the last couple of years, but we've been pretty entertaining, to say the least. So I'd like to think they were excited about that."
* Neither Fitzgerald nor the players, not surprisingly, had yet studied Texas A&M, which also finished 6-6. But a quick look at the Aggie numbers show they lost to No. 3 Oklahoma State by a point, to unranked Texas by two points, to No. 16 Kansas State by three points and to No. 6 Arkansas by four points; that they have a 1,000-yard rusher in Cyrus Gray and a 900-yard rusher in Christine Michael; that their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, has completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 3,415 yards and 28 touchdowns; and that they've registered 43 sacks. "But I fundamentally believe stats are for losers," Fitzgerald would say in the face of those facts.
"The only thing that matters is both teams are zero and zero. We've got a chance to achieve one of our major goals in our program and send our seniors out as champions. That's going to be our focus all month. We don't change what we do because we're in a bowl game. If anything, we demand more. We're not very pleased with the way we played this year. I think I made that crystal clear after the Michigan State game. So we're going some things fixed, we're going to get some guys playing more consistently or they're not going to play."
* And finally, senior tackle Al Netter, on what it would mean for the 'Cats to win a bowl game for the first time since 1949: "I think it would be huge. It would be a great way for us seniors to leave a stamp on what we've done, a good stamp on what we've been able to accomplish here as a program. To finish our careers with a bowl win would mean everything to us."