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    Eyes of NU Football Fixed Firmly Ahead

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    * Here's a rarity. As their offensive player of the game in Saturday's win over South Dakota, the 'Cat coaches selected left tackle Patrick Ward. "He had one 'minus' the whole game. He was pretty close to that perfect game you can throw as an offensive lineman," Pat Fitzgerald said Monday.

    * Here's the kicker. Adam Cushing, the 'Cat offensive line coach, gave Ward his single minus on, of all things, a quarterback sneak. "I beat Cush up about it today. I made fun of Adam," Fitzgerald revealed. "I told him, 'Pat Ward came to me and said it was the worst coaching performance he'd ever seen. [Cushing] had to nitpick to give him a minus.' It was actually on a quarterback sneak. That was the funny part of the whole thing. 'C'mon, Cush. Give me a break.'"

    * Here's something else. Ward, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, has gotten an A in every course he has taken but one. In it he slipped up and only got an A-minus. "That's ridiculous," Fitzgerald said in admiration, and then he added this. "You know, it'd be pretty cool if his play on the field matched his grades in the classroom. In my opinion -- now I don't have all the GPAs of all the college football players in the country -- but I'm not sure there's anyone any smarter than Patrick Ward in college football today. There's probably some bright guys. But I know we don't have anybody else with one A-minus in mechanical engineering at Northwestern. So I'll put Patrick's grades up against anybody's, and the way he's playing now is pretty special too."

    * Here's one last thing. Also nominated for that award won by Ward were center Brian Vitabile and left guard Brian Mulroe. "So I think all three guys are playing at a pretty high level, and Saturday was never in doubt. We controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides," Fitzgerald declared. "That's going to be key as we move forward. Obviously, the challenges get a lot more difficult, a lot more difficult. That's not to take anything away from the Coyotes. But, you know. Now let's go do it against Big 10 competition."

    * The 'Cats, of course, open the Big Ten portion of their season Saturday against Indiana, and that was squarely Fitzgerald's focus Monday at his regular weekly press conference. There was, in fact, little reflection on their win over the Coyotes and, even when that did occur, his responses invariably segued to conference play and what lies ahead. Here, to cite one example, is how it went when he was asked about the play of the offensive line as a whole. "They've done a nice job. We can still finish blocks better. We can still target better and be a little more efficient there," he said. "The big run by Trey (Treyvon Green) on Saturday (which went for 33 yards and a touchdown), it was a great block to spring him by (receiver) Christian Jones coming in to seal the linebacker. So it's been more than the offensive line. It's been the backs having great vision, hitting the hole, then our guys on the perimeter doing a great job."

    Have they improved since he criticized the receivers' blocking earlier this season?

    "They have improved. I wasn't very pleased with them early in the year and I think they've embraced that, taken to the challenge and worked hard to get better. Now. Let's go do it against Big Ten football players. It's one thing to do it in the nonconference. That's what I told the team this morning. It's another thing to do it in conference. These guys, at a certain point in their lives, they made the decision that they had aspirations to be a Big Ten football player. That's why we're all in this conference. To compete against the best of the best. Hopefully, we'll continue to improve as the season goes along. But now the second season starts."

    * Then, one more time, there was this when he was asked how he felt about his undefeated team. "I think they should be pleased with the fact that we found a way to win four games and I think through that we should be a very confident football team," Fitzgerald said. "They've embraced improving in practice. There's a lot of competition. The guys understand that every rep counts, and every rep matters. If we can continue to do that, and get better on Saturdays in the moment, I think we have a chance to be a good football team. But you learn a lot more about yourself in conference play. Now you kind of figure out what's in your belly, when you start playing Big Ten football."

    * Finally, if all that were not proof enough of where the attention now lays, there was this. There is a board in the team's meeting room that lists its football goals and, through the first four weeks, only one of them was visible. It said, "Consistently prepare for victory." But, by this Monday, black tape had been removed from another to reveal the second of those goals. It read, "Win the Legends Division."

    "That's our goal now," linebacker Damien Proby declared when asked about that. "But the fact that that goal is uncovered means nothing to us, obviously. We're going to focus on this game here. The first step to winning our division is going through Indiana. That's what we plan to do this week."

    Is that something his coach is stressing now, the start of a new season?

    "We know it's Big Ten play," Proby asserted. "Going 4-0 out of conference is definitely an accomplishment in itself. But to win our division, those four games, they don't mean a lot. We know we need to win [in conference]. So we need to focus on being 0-0. We still have a big thing to prove to other Big Ten members of who we actually are and what we can do. That's something [Fitzgerald] puts a lot of emphasis on." *Quickly noted: 'Cat quarterbacks, who have 118 passing attempts, have yet to throw an interception this season. "They've handled the expectations we have for that position well," Fitzgerald would say of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. "They've not forced things, they've tried not to do too much. Outside of, really, truly, three throws all year, I think we've been, 'All right. That was a good decision.' There were a couple throws, 'M-m-m-m. Check it down. Run it. The picture's too cloudy. Go somewhere else with the ball.' Outside of that, they've made really good decisions."... Overall, the 'Cats have one pick and six fumble recoveries and have themselves fumbled the ball away just three times. That means they are a plus-4 in turnover ratio. "That's critically important, especially as you move into Big Ten play," Fitzgerald said here. "Typically the teams that win the turnover ratio win games. The number one correlation to winning football games is that. We've got to get better there. We had the ball on the ground three times and got lucky (against South Dakota). Didn't have any of them end up being turnovers." ... Asked about the hard hit Colter took Saturday that re-aggravated a lingering left wrist injury, Fitzgerald said, "There were probably two with Kain when he probably should have slid. But he thinks he can score on every play. That's a good problem, right? He's a dynamic athlete, but he's got to be a little bit smarter." ... The 'Cats are ranked just outside the Top 25 in both the Coaches and Associated Press polls. "It's something that really doesn't bother us, it's something we don't pay attention to or care about," running back Mike Trumpy said when asked about the snub. "We just care about each other. Within the program, we know how good we are and how good we can be. What other people think doesn't really bother us."

    * And finally, on a lighter note: "Hot dog games", in the vernacular, are those that are nailed down early enough for those coaches up in the booth to have one in the fourth quarter. Earlier this season, while discussing his team's propensity for nail biters, Fitzgerald had joked that defensive backs coach Jerry Brown had enjoyed only a handful of those in his long tenure with the 'Cats. But on Monday he reported, "Jerry did have a hot dog (last Saturday). Think that's number six in his 20 years here."

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