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    The 2012-13 academic year was a memorable one for Northwestern. Over the next few weeks, we will celebrate the conference championships, noteworthy wins and significant milestones the Wildcats accumulated during the past year. Be sure to follow along at NUSports.com as we re-isit the top 20 moments.

    Moment No. 13
    Date Sept. 1, 2012
    Location Carrier Dome | Syracuse, N.Y.
    Original Story Northwestern Wins Wild Season-Opener Over Syracuse, 42-41
    Social Media @NUFBFamily   |  Northwestern Football
    Top 20 Countdown Northwestern's Top 20 Moments of 2012-13 Countdown

    With high expectations for the 2012 season, Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats kicked off the campaign on a steamy day inside the Carrier Dome against Syracuse on Sept. 1. It turned out to be another in a long line of games that have earned NU its moniker of the "Cardiac 'Cats" and one that served as a springboard to one of the best seasons in Northwestern history.

    V. Mark Returns vs. SU

    After a slow first quarter, Northwestern got on a roll beginning with Venric Mark's explosive 82-yard punt return for a touchdown and seized its first lead of the game when, following a Chi Chi Ariguzo interception return to the 21-yard line, Kain Colter found Christian Jones for Colter's first touchdown pass of the year.

    By the time Ariguzo recovered a fumble and ran it in for a touchdown in the third quarter, Northwestern had amassed a 28-13 advantage. But the Orange began mounting a rally and eventually reclaimed the lead, 41-35, with 2:40 to go.

    Enter quarterback Trevor Siemian. The sophomore from Orlando stepped in for Colter and orchestrated a heart-stopping drive, completing 6-of-7 passes along the way and also absorbing a late hit out of bounds -- on a 3rd-and-14 scenario -- to move NU to the 9-yard line. That's when Siemian dropped back and picked out senior wideout Demetrius Fields darting to the corner of the end zone, hitting Fields in stride to level the score at 41 apiece with 44 seconds to play. Jeff Budzien came on to boot the game-winning extra point and, following a defensive stop on the Orange's final drive, Northwestern escaped the Dome with a crucial early-season win.

    The victory kept intact Fitzgerald's perfect record in season-openers as head coach of Northwestern, improving to 7-0. Including Syracuse, Northwestern defeated five teams that played in bowl games last season -- along with Vanderbilt, Minnesota, Michigan State and Mississippi State.

    WATCH: Gov. Quinn's Proclamation

    WATCH: Gator Bowl Celebration Highlights

    While in town this morning to announce a $1 million Gigabit Grant to the City of Evanston, Illinois governor Pat Quinn also gave Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald a special proclamation declaring Friday, Jan. 18, "Northwestern Wildcat Football Day" in the state of Illinois.

    Purple Pride Abounds in Jacksonville

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    WATCH: Postcard from Jacksonville #6 | Gator Bowl Press Conference (Free)

    On the eve of a New Year and of the 2013 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Northwestern and its tremendous fan base enjoyed a busy day in Jacksonville.


    * Monday morning presented the Wildcats with their first opportunity to step inside the site of their Gator Bowl competition and the home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, EverBank Field. The north end zone in the 67,164-seat stadium already was filled with Northwestern purple, complete with the distinctive 'Northwestern stripe' featured in both Ryan Field end zones.

    NU donned their home purple jerseys and filed into the stands for a team picture, an annual tradition at each bowl destination. In what might be considered a break from tradition, however, the 'Cats announced Monday that they will sport special matte black helmets when they take the field tomorrow, similar to those worn twice during the regular season but with a new twist:


    * Following the quick trip to the stadium, most Wildcats returned to the hotel while seniors Brian Mulroe, Brian Arnfelt and David Nwabuisi joined head coach Pat Fitzgerald for the final Gator Bowl press conference. The quartet fielded questions from Chicago, Mississippi State and Jacksonville media, reflecting on their season, experiences this week and the significance of a potential win on New Year's Day.


    * The last public item on the agenda for the squad was the Coaches Luncheon at Jacksonville's Prime Osborn Convention Center, a chance to bring together both teams and their supporters to celebrate their seasons and selections to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Northwestern's standout left tackle and two-time first-team Capital One Academic All-American Patrick Ward was honored by the bowl as a Scholar-Athlete Award recipient, while former Gator Bowl participants and longtime contributors to the sport of football Don Orr (referee) and Corky Rogers (high school football coaching legend) were inducted into the Gator Bowl Hall of Fame.

    As he has been known to do, Coach Fitzgerald fired up the crowd with his address to the group, giving special recognition to the wives of the Northwestern coaching staff for all they do to support the success of their husbands and the program at large.


    * As temperatures climbed into the upper 60's under sunny Jacksonville skies, Northwestern fans took to the streets in droves to watch the Gator Bowl parade. The route began at EverBank Field and covered the nearly three miles to the popular Jacksonville Landing location. The Northwestern University Marching Band made its first appearance of the week and rallied the NU faithful.

    Check back later today for more photos and tweets as well as a recap of the upcoming pep rally at Jacksonville Landing! Go 'Cats!

    Wildcats Take Timeout For a Good Cause

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    Two days before its TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl showdown against Mississippi State, several members of the Northwestern football team and spirit squad made time to make a difference in the Jacksonville community.

    Following a morning practice, the Wildcats and their counterparts from Starkville paid a visit to the Wolfson Children's Hospital in downtown Jacksonville to bring some excitement and holiday cheer to young people enduring a difficult time. It was obvious by the end of the 90-minute visit that both the 'Cats and the patients at Wolfson were greatly affected by their positive interactions.

    Representing the Wildcats were: WR Drew Moulton, SB Evan Watkins, LB Roderick Goodlow, OL Shane Mertz, P/PK Matt Micucci and DL Ifeadi Odenigbo.

     

    In each room, the Wildcats and spirit squad members managed to find a connection with the youngsters, chatting with them about their favorite sports and teams they root for, video games they play, foods they like to eat and other activities that make them smile. And of course, sometimes there is little need for conversation when a young person is taking in the presence of an imposing 6-foot-8 offensive lineman for the first time.

    * New Year's Eve Day will be a busy one for the Wildcats and Northwestern fans alike, with a slew of items on the agenda from morning till night. To kick it off, the entire team will head to EverBank Field for the first time in order to snap a team photo in the venue, home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. After that, Pat Fitzgerald and his team captains meet the media for the final time before kickoff and then join the rest of the team at the Coaches Luncheon and Gator Bowl Hall of Fame induction.

    The afternoon slate features a lengthy parade featuring marching bands and spirit squad members from both schools as well as a Northwestern-only pep rally at the Jacksonville Landing. While many in the city and around the world will be staying up late to ring in the New Year, the Wildcats will be enduring their usual "Friday" routine of meetings, movies and final pre-game preparations.

    The Gator Bowl, Local Perspective

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    WATCH: Postcard from Jacksonville Dec. 27

    Coach Fitz Post-practice Interview | K. Colter Post-practice Interview


    Our football team just wrapped up its first Bowl Week practice session down in Jacksonville and we have officially been on the ground in Gator Bowl country for more than 24 hours. So far the committee and our hosts have been tremendously welcoming and we've picked up a few bits of knowledge that we'd like to pass along to you in this blog!

    If you don't follow us on Twitter (@NU_Sports), do so! Tonight, we will be turning over the handle to one of our student-athletes as the team visits Latitude 30, which features activities like bowling, billiards and arcade games. Should be a fun night for the team!

    The B1GCats Have Arrived in Jacksonville!

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    Northwestern Football's official travel party left Evanston early Wednesday morning, Dec. 26, to travel to Jacksonville, Fla., for the official start of Gator Bowl Week. In each of the days leading up to the New Year's Day Gator Bowl, we'll have blogs in this space updating you on all of the activities our team and staff are enjoying.

    In addition, check out our new Gator Bowl Facebook Tab, now available on our page at Facebook.com/NorthwesternAthletics. In this tab, we will have an updated video from each day down in Jacksonville as well as a regularly updated "Photo of the Day" and the ability to read our most recent Gator Bowl blog entry. Keep up with the #B1GCats conversation on Twitter from Facebook, as well, with an embedded #B1GCats twitter feed.

    We are excited to unveil our 2012 Twitter hashtag for Northwestern Football and all of our 19 varsity sports programs over the coming academic school year: #B1GCats.

     

    Why #B1GCats? We love the way it channels both our Chicago's Big Ten Team brand and our membership in the "B1G" Conference. While the Wildcat is one of the most popular nicknames in collegiate athletics, we truly are the only #B1GCats. It's also shorter than #Northwestern--we love what our school name stands for, but it was not made for a 140-character world.

     

    In the realm of the B1G, we also are excited about the way our hashtag complements the Big Ten's stable of Twitter accounts. The #B1GCats play @B1GFootball.

     

    #B1GCats will be our official hashtag across all sports in 2012-13, and we still will use #Northwestern as well. The #Northwestern #B1GCats open the season at Syracuse at 11 a.m. CT Saturday. Make sure you use the hashtag for the best chance of inclusion in our @Storify social media recap after the game!

     

    Help us welcome the #B1GCats hashtag into our Twitter family by using it today in a clever and creative tweet. We'll pick one of our favorites and award an @UnderArmour purple heatgear t-shirt to its author!

     

     

    Big Ten Football Media Day Afternoon Update

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    Fresh from the conclusion of the first day of Big Ten Football Media Day Thursday at the Hyatt McCormick in Chicago, here is your afternoon update.

    Pat Fitzgerald took the stage right at noon today to address the print media, covering several topics. He talked at length about the team's cumulative GPA of 3.04 from last year and about Northwestern having the best APR score in Division I FBS football. Combined with four-consecutive bowl berths, NU's combination of academics and athletics currently are unmatched at any level in the nation.

    Big Ten Football Media Day Morning Update

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    We're down here at the 2012 Big Ten Football Media Day, kicking off the season with Coach Fitz and our three player representatives: junior quarterback Kain Colter, senior offensive lineman Brian Mulroe and senior linebacker David Nwabuisi.

     

    Our rotation begins at 11:20 when the three players meet with BTN, CBS and ESPN. Coach Fitz makes his first appearance at noon CT to address the assembled print media from the main podium; that 15-minute session will be aired live on BTN and possibly ESPNU. Following those sessions, the NU contingent will begin the local TV rotation at 12:30 p.m. CT. In that room, players and coaches sit for 15 minutes at each of five different podiums where media are assembled, rotating around the room to greet all five groups.

     

    A couple of notes before we begin:

     

    * Earlier this morning, we released our new 2012 Under Armour football jerseys. We will have artwork on hand for the media and are scheduled to have a physical jersey to display, as well.


    * More media registered for this year's Big Ten Media Day than ever before, surpassing last season's record-breaking total.

     

    * Northwestern student-radio WNUR 89.3 FM is here and will be broadcasting live from 2-4 p.m. CT. Several NU players are scheduled to join them in the 2 p.m. hour.

     

    * For the first time this year, players and coaches will meet in a dedicated room with ESPN.com to film video interviews and pieces for the web. Sirius/XM also is part of the main rotation in the local TV room. Coach Fitz is scheduled tape an interview on Sirius/XM College Sports Nation (channel 91) at 1:45 p.m. CT.

     

    * The three players arrived from campus around 10 a.m., using a staff hotel room to meticulously get dressed. As Nwabuisi ironed his purple shirt, the trio proclaimed they easily would be "the best dressed players here." Lots of pride in representing Northwestern!

     

    For more updates as the day rolls along, stick to @NU_Sports on Twitter and this blog.

    BLOG: Catching Up with Coach Hankwitz

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    Photo Gallery of Misericordia Visiting Thursday's Spring Football Practice

    It is a fine Thursday morning and the practice has gone well. Ahead of the 'Cats now is a Saturday scrimmage, which will put the punctuation mark on their labors of spring. But even here, under the sun, there are memories of last season, a season in which their defense surrendered an average of 27.7 points and 407.7 yards per game. This is proven when, to start our chat, we toss out a general question to Mike Hankwitz and the defensive coordinator replies, "I like our attitude and our effort. We talked about last year and we're moving on. We've looked at everything, we've evaluated, and now it's about solutions. We've given them solutions and they've worked their tails off to work on them. I like where we're at. We've got a good mix of veteran guys and young, eager guys, kind of like four years ago. So we've made a lot of progress, but we've got to keep making it. That's the key."

    When they looked at last season, what did they see?

    "We were inconsistent. We didn't execute well enough. We gave up too many explosion plays because of that. Part of that lack of execution was communication, part of it was discipline to do your job. When those things break down, you give up big plays and you're not going to play good defense. There were times when we did, and we got it going, started playing a lot better at the end. But it wasn't as good as we need to be."

    We tell him now that, two Saturdays ago, the defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."

    Here Hankwitz smiles and chuckles ruefully.

    Does he feel the same, we then ask.
        
    "Well, yeah. We work our (butts) off, you know, and when you're not as good as you want to be, it hurts your pride. But we're going to do something about it. We're glad Arnie's back. We were hoping we'd have him last fall, but he never got back until the very end of the year (because of injury). He had a great spring going, we were excited, but unfortunately that happened at a number of positions where guys got hurt, missed time. But it's going to happen, so we're trying to develop our depth so if it does happen again, it won't have the same impact."

    Another point made on that Saturday by Arnfelt, who was talking after a scrimmage that was dominated by the defense, was this. "The offense really got after us on Thursday and we just kind of said in our position meetings throughout the whole defensive squad, 'We can't let that happen.' You see some things (on film) that could trickle into what happened last year."

    "He's probably partly right," says Hankwitz.

    And what did Arnfelt see on film that made him think that way?

    "I don't know exactly. We've got a lot of young guys playing with the second team and they made some mental mistakes and gave up plays. Probably that's what he's referring to. But, yeah. We had a good first five practices, then we had a two-week break, came back, went three practices out of four days, the third practice being the Thursday he's referring to, and we didn't have the same energy and intensity. But since then, we have. So I'd like to think we've taken a big step and learned from that. But we've got to continue on that same path."

    Learned what? That you have to always play with intensity?

    "You have to have intensity on defense. Offenses keep changing, tweaking, spreads, this and that, spreading the field, you've got to have intensity on defense. Defense is passion and effort and intensity. If you don't have that, you're not going to be a good defense, I don't care how good you are. You can watch Alabama and they have all this great talent. But they play hard, and they play with intensity. It doesn't matter what your ability level is. You've got to have that ingredient."   

    Our impression this spring, we now say, is that Arnfelt has emerged as one of the defensive leaders intent on making sure that the intensity is always there.

    "I think he has, yes. Quentin (Williams, the defensive end) and him and Ib (safety Ibraheim Campbell) and Bus (linebacker David Nwabuisi), some of the older guys are taking more of a leadership role. That's part of Coach Fitz's (Pat Fitzgerald's) Leadership Council principle. We're trying to teach them how to become leaders and take things upon themselves. But they still have to do it, and I think those guys have stepped up more than normal this spring. That's exciting to see."

    Another guy who has been singled out this spring by Fitzgerald, we tell him, is the defensive end Tyler Scott, whom he says is ready to make that step that will deliver him some national recognition.

    "I would agree. He was playing extremely well last fall, and then he got hurt and missed three games or so. When he came back, he wasn't quite the same, and then he started getting better and better. This spring, he's taken up from the best he was playing and gone a little beyond that. So, yeah. We're excited about him."

    Does he have one characteristic that makes him so good?

    "I think it's a combination. He's a good athlete. He was a linebacker, so he's got athleticism. And he's smart, and he plays very hard, he plays with great effort. Now that experience he's accumulated, he's starting to put it all together."

    Speaking of experience, we mention that offensive coordinator Mick McCall recently said, "All those kids, they don't get everything the first time through or the second time. The third time, it starts to come." Is there a similar learning curve on defense?

    "Oh, yeah. There's an old saying, there's no substitute for experience, and you don't experience everything in one fall, especially if you're a young guy and learning the opponent's defense (on the practice squad) and stuff. You just can't see everything. Yeah. In a perfect world, everyone would learn from everybody else's mistakes and what happened to them. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes you've got to be there and it's got to happen to you. You've got to make the mistake before you understand what you've got to do, or why it's important you do what you're supposed to do. And experience isn't just what happens to you. It's also what you learn from it. Sometimes you have to have it happen to you before you realize, 'Oh. Now I know why I'm supposed to do this like coach said.'"

    With that in mind, are there any younger kids who this spring have shown that they've got that understanding? We're thinking here especially of the line, where big reps have gone to players like junior (in the fall) Will Hampton and sophomore Chance Carter and redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson.

    "Deonte's impressed us with his wherewithal, his awareness. Chance, we've seen the potential in him and Will. Another guy who's had a good spring is (sophomore tackle Sean) McEvilly. Then (redshirt freshman) Drew Smith has done a lot of nice things at backer. Collin (Ellis, a sophomore who started last fall) is getting more experience all the time. Chi Chi (Ariguzo, another sophomore who played last fall) is now a little more comfortable, then we've got excellent competition in the back part. Nick (VanHoose, a redshirt freshman corner) has done some good things, shown some good things, as has D.J. (sophomore corner Daniel Jones) at times, and Doogie (senior corner Demetrius Dugar). So we've got competition and hopefully, it is making them all better. Then Davion (Fleming, a junior safety) is healthy and he's a little older, so he's competing, him and Hunter (Bates, a senior). Ibraheim is building on his experience, then (sophomore safety) Jimmy Hall's gaining a lot of valuable experience. So there's a lot of young guys that have shown good things. But the key is they've got to keep improving, keep learning."

    How does a coach feel when a redshirt sophomore, Campbell, is his most-experienced backer?

    "Well. If you look, Hunter and (junior safety Jared) Carpenter (who sat out the spring) and Davion, they've all played and they've been here two, three years. So they're a little more experienced than you might think. But it is what it is. We're just going to have to execute with what we've got. I think we'll be fine."

    We know Damien Proby, who ended last season as the starting middle linebacker, is another who has been held out this spring. But has Hankwitz decided how he will utilize him and Nwabuisi, who started last season in the middle?

    "No. But Bus played both Mike (middle) and Will, and that's a big strength for him, his ability to play both. It gives us more depth back there. So we have some flexibility there."

    And Collin Ellis has been moved?

    "We moved him to Will (from Sam), put him in the box. He's a physical player, it's more natural for him in there. So he's going through a little learning curve, but he's done some nice things."

    And Chi Chi's at Sam?

    "Him and Drew Smith, two athletic guys. Chi Chi's getting more confident out there. We like his and Drew's athleticism."

    Which they need since they play in space?

    "Yeah. They're more of the wide side (of the field). Will has to play some in space, but he's on the side of the field where there's a little less room and he can attack."

    That covers the players and so, finally, what about Hankwitz himself, whom many blamed him for last season's defensive deficiencies. Does he hear that talk? Does he take it personally?

    He chuckles softly and then says, "There's always going to be critics, but I know we've played damn good defense for most of three years. Yeah, when Dan (Persa) got hurt two years ago, yeah, it affected us. But prior to that, I'll stand by what we did. Now (what happened) last year, yeah, my pride's stung too. I take pride in what I do. I'm probably harder on myself than anyone else is. I don't care what they say. I'm disappointed. I'm frustrated. But I'm going to do something about it. I'm not going to dwell on it, and worry about that. I've been doing this long enough to know what we're capable of and what we need to do to get better. I'm not going to worry about the criticism. That's always going to happen. My goal is to get us better." 
     

    BLOG: Sky Team

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    THE FACTOID: The Sky Team. That is now the handle of the 'Cats defensive backfield. "It's the nickname we gave ourselves," explains one of them, senior corner Demetrius Dugar. "We feel if we're going to reach that championship level (as a team), it's got to start by taking over the sky. We've got to control the air. We gave up a lot of big plays last year through the air. So the thing this year that we're focusing on is knocking that all out. So we're The Sky Team. We're going to control the sky, get the ball, not let those receivers have the ball. We're going to do our part. That's the identity we're going to build on."

    THE REALITY: The rear view recalls those fatal explosion plays surrendered last season by the 'Cat DBs, and the stats reveal that they gave up more passing yards per-game (230.4) than any other group in the Big Ten. That was, most certainly, bad. But a closer look at the numbers also shows they were singed for only 16 touchdown passes, which were fewer than those surrendered by a half-dozen conference teams (including Michigan State and Ohio State), and that their 12 interceptions were fifth best in the league. This, on the other hand, was not so bad.

    Still, in the wake of that season and throughout this spring, this group has been perceived as its team's underbelly, that proverbial chink in the armor that could again scuttle its drive to success. "To our great fans who are talking negative about our defensive backs, please continue to do that. You're adding fuel by being masters of the obvious," Pat Fitzgerald would say Thursday, recognizing that fact. "They love it. They can't thank you enough for your loving TLC and support. This is the time in the spring that I'm sprinkling a few of the things that some of those great fans are saying. I'm letting them hear it, so it ticks them off. Then in the fall, I won't let them listen to any of those people who don't know what they're talking about anyway."

    "That does (tick) us off," Dugar says when his coach's comments are relayed to him. "It's easy to say don't let what happens on the outside effect you. But at the same time you're a man, and if somebody's coming at your pride, you want to step up and prove them wrong. That's what we want to do. We take it personal."

    THE PERSONNEL: At practice on Thursday, the first unit corners were Dugar and redshirt freshman Nick Van Hoose and the first unit safeties were sophomore Ibraheim Campbell and junior Davion Flemming. But this is spring, and the competition here is rampant, and in the mix too were (at corner) sophomores Daniel Jones, Mike Eshun and redshirt freshman Jarrell Williams and (at safety) senior Hunter Bates, sophomore Jimmy Hall and redshirt freshman Matt Carpenter. "I don't know. It's up to the young men," Fitzgerald will say when asked how long he thinks this DB competition will last. "But I'll tell you this. These guys are competing their tails off. We've got a pretty good receiver corps, and they're competing their tails off."

    A FEW WORDS: "The attitude in our room is that we've got to be the best," Dugar says. "Last year we felt like we took a lot of the blame for a lot of the things that went on on the field, so this year we want to make sure we come out on top. We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten, one of the top secondaries in the nation. We're just trying to get to that championship level."

    How do they remain friends while competing for the same jobs?

    "We're fighting for the same job, but we're also fighting for the championship. That's the bigger picture," he says. "We try to do what we have to do to get that championship. It's more about team than the individual. So at the end of the day, we're all going to step it up if our number is called. The idea is to just be ready. So we're all going to come out and compete against each other. But at the same time, we're still boys, we're still the defensive backfield, we're still The Sky Team. So we're going to keep working with each other."

    Is the competition stress or motivation?

    "It's definitely motivation. Sometimes you come out here, you get in the grind of spring ball, you may come out here and your mindset might be a little off. So it can be a little stressful. But at the same time it's motivation because you know these guys are going to fight everyday to get the same spot that you're trying to get. So it's motivation."

    FLASHBACK: The '09 'Cats, who would end their run in the next year's Outback Bowl, had a quarterback taking over for the first time as a full-time starter (Mike Kafka) and an array of defenders with singular personalities (Corey Wootton, Quentin Dave, Brad Phillips, Brian Peters, Brendan Smith). The 2012 'Cats, who are still in their formative stage, have a quarterback taking over for the first time as a full-time starter (Kain Colter) and an array of defenders hell bent on rehabilitating their unit's image (see Dugar's comments above and recall that tackle Brian Arnfelt said just last Saturday, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."). It was no surprise, then, that Fitzgerald recently said his current group reminds him of the former.

    "I thought the '09 team had a spirit about them that was player run," he said Thursday when asked to expand on that comment. "You think about some of those guys on that defense who were dynamic personalities. The Woottens, that whole group, and I'm starting to see that here. Then on offense, we have guys who can make some plays. I'm starting to see that. So a lot of similarities in that spring prior to that season to what I'm seeing right now. But talk is cheap. We've got a lot of work to do."

    And just what is he seeing?

    "I just see a lot of guys with a lot of passion, and through that I think you just work  diligently to get better. I've been impressed with our attitude. I've been impressed by the way we've worked. We've got a lot of things to get so much better at. But at least they're working at it, which is all we can ask."

    "I definitely see the similarities," Dugar will finally say when appraised of his coach's comparison. "One thing about that '09 team is, they had a lot of team camaraderie, they had a lot of characters on that team and everybody embraced each other. That's kind of the same mentality we've been working on. That'll definitely make us a better team."

    AND FINALLY: Saturday's practice is closed, so we won't be back at you until Tuesday. Until then.

    Blog: Do Not Overlook The Linemen

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    THE FACTOID: It all starts with the line. Despite the kinetic skills of quarterback Kain Colter; despite the promise of running backs Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green; despite the scorching speed of Tony Jones and Venric Mark; despite that collection of wide receivers as combustible as a bad marriage; despite each of those promising facts, it all starts with the line. For if it does not open holes and provide precious seconds of protection, the 'Cat offense is nothing more than so much fish food. "We know we have play makers all around," says one in that line, the senior guard Brian Mulroe. "So it's on us. We have to be the most important group."

    "We think that all the time," Adam Cushing, its coach, will soon add. "But, certainly. We look around, and we graduated some pretty good players. But you look around the team, there's a bunch of good players. As an offensive line, you go execute, you've got a chance to be a pretty special offense."

    OINK:
    Its goal now, as it has been in recent season's past, is to play with Hog Pride. That, in fact, is the banner under which it operates. Hog Pride. "It is," says Mulroe, explaining what that means, "just having a nasty attitude and playing as one."

    INTRODUCTIONS: Its members are more anonymous than Deep Throat was back in the days of Watergate, and so here we pause to put some flesh on their numbers. At right tackle there is Chucky, the 6-foot-7, 315-pound senior Chuck Porcelli, at right guard there is Neal Daddy, the 6-foot-8, 315-pound senior Neal Dieters. "Obviously he's been around the program a long time and has played a couple positions," Cushing says of Dieters. "His advantage, he kind of knows the tackle position so he knows what's going on out there. A huge guy. With both he and Chuck, it'll be kind of the same thing, just playing with a consistent pad level. When you're six-seven, six-eight, whatever those two guys are, playing with your pads down is the most difficult thing to get done. Then Chuck's a guy who's been around and been playing the backup role for us. A year ago, he was our third tackle on both sides. He was by no means waiting his turn. But now that it's his fifth year, I think he's excited for the opportunity. He's having fun playing football. That's one of those fun things to see, when he's cutting it loose and having fun on the field."

    Next, at center, there is V Tabs, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore Brandon Vitabile, who started last season as a redshirt freshman. "He's got to focus on just trusting himself," Cushing says of him. "At times, he's a very good football player and he plays very naturally with his feet apart. At times, he tries to do a little more than what his job is and that's the only time he gets himself in trouble. He tries to do everything rather than just his job. But that's a good problem to have. You can fix those."

    To his left, at guard, is Muls, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior Mulroe, and at that tackle there is the 6-foot-7, 310-pound senior Pat Ward, who started last season on the right ("Pat doesn't have a nickname," explains Mulroe. "But if he had one, it would be genius or bookworm or something like that."). "It's a slight adjustment to move to the other side," Cushing says of that latter. "But that's what he played in high school, so he's comfortable in a left-handed stance. For him, it's simple fundamentals he has to concentrate on. He's played a lot of football for us, so we have a lot of confidence in him. But he's got to continue to develop those very basic things. Then Brian's probably the best athlete we have up front. Tremendous feet. Plays with leverage well. There's a few basic things they all need to work on. Brian, throughout his career, has been gaining the weight to be a full-fledged O-lineman. I used to give him a lot of guff about it. But he's done a great job of now playing at that Big Ten weight."

    BUT SEPTEMBER IS FAR AWAY: That quintet has appeared regularly this spring with the first unit, yet that is no guarantee the cast won't change by the fall. For in the mix too are the 6-foot-5, 285-pound sophomore Jack Konopka, the former superback who is pushing Porcelli at right tackle; and the 6-foot-5, 280-pound redshirt freshman Geoff Mogus, who is pushing Dieters at right guard; and, on the left side, the 6-foot-8, 295-pound redshirt freshman Shane Mertz ("He's an aircraft carrier out there. The USS Mertz," Pat Fitzgerald says of him) and the 6-foot-6, 295-pound sophomore Paul Jorgensen.

    "It'll probably be ongoing all the way through," Fitzgerald will say of the competition on the line's right side. "I think between the ones and twos, with both guys, I think we have a chance to have a starter there. For the first time, we might rotate some guys a little bit. We've got that much competition. We've got some pretty good depth there."

    "He's very-naturally talented, but it's a different position all together," Cushing says of Konopka, the former superback who is in the middle of that competition. "There's a million different things that go on in the offensive line. That's going to be the challenge for him, catching up to the minutiae of the game in there. When he does that, he's going to be good. His athletic ability is tremendous."

    PAUSE FOR A FLASHBACK: In 2001 Trai Essex was the tight end on the Big Ten's All Freshman team, but then-coach Randy Walker switched him to left tackle. He would go on to start 37 games for the 'Cats at that position and then be selected in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who gave him a $460,000 signing bonus and won two Super Bowls in his time with them. So Konopka has a precedent he can regard, and a success story to try and match.

    BACK TO THE PRESENT: Fitzgerald, as all 'Cat fans know, covets competition, and when asked the mood of his room, Cushing will say, "It's an attitude of competition. There is some good competition." So that is a benefit. But then, a sentence later, he will add, "Whenever there's competition, it's a strain for everyone to gel together, so that's what we're working on the most right now. Making sure the communication's there. Making sure the camaraderie's there, and that the trust is there with each other." So, as Hamlet famously noted, "Therein lies the rub."

    THE GOAL:
    They appear, to the naked eye, to be nothing more than a bunch of Brobdingnagian bodies bashing away at the defenders confronting them. But in truth, on each snap, the offensive linemen are dance partners who must work as one to achieve their goals. Their feet, their hips, each of their moves must mesh, and to achieve the kind of synchronicity needed for success, they must know each other intimately, they must trust each other totally, they must communicate with each other nonverbally. That is why a line is better the longer it is together. That is also why, with its final makeup still uncertain, the 'Cat line is now nothing more than a work in progress. "It's growing," Mulroe will admit when asked if his group has its choreography down yet. "We haven't all played together. But it's going to keep continuing to grow and we're going to need that. We need to solidify that."

    But how do you solidify that once spring practice ends and months separate them from the opening of fall camp?   

    "They do a little bit of position work on their own through spring and summer," explains Cushing. "Very simple fundamentals. You don't want them to do too much because they might develop some poor habits. But they do some drills where they work together, just two-man combinations, so they trust the guy to their right or their left. And they hang out a lot. Spring and summer, there's a push to get together off-the-field as well. That trust from off-the-field carries over. So we get them together, we have dinner including me at times so we can all develop that trust together."

    AND FINALLY THIS, from the late futurist R. Buckminster Fuller in his book I Seem To Be A Verb: "We should look on our society as we look on the biological world, where the fungi, the manures and the worms make an extraordinary contribution. . . We tend to applaud the football player who makes the touchdown and overlook the lineman who does the heavy blocking. We should not only applaud the flower, the fruit and the ball carrier."

    BLOG: One Cold March Day

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    THE FACTOID: The 'Cats scrimmaged Saturday for the first time this spring in gray, raw, November weather. The session lasted some 85 plays and later, when asked what he got out of the exercise, Pat Fitzgerald most notably said, "We've got some passion. We've got some fire in our belly. I think we're a physical football team. A lot of little things we've got to clean up. . . But I like the attitude of the ball club."

    THE DECISION GOES TO: The dominant unit Saturday was the defense, which held the offense without a touchdown until (if you will) the fourth quarter of the scrimmage. This was significant for two reasons. The first, quite obviously, are the memories of those defensive breakdowns last season that so damaged the team's chances for success. The other is that, just two days earlier, the offense dominated the defense in practice. "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption," senior tackle Brian Arnfelt would later explain. "We looked at the film (of last season) and just said, 'You've got to strive to be the best you can. You can't accept mediocrity.'

     "So we were doing great before the break, we came back, the offense really got after us on Thursday. We just kind of said in our position meeting throughout the whole defensive squad, 'We can't let that happen.' You see some things that could trickle into what happened last year, so we came out here with an attitude today that we're going to get after it. I'm really proud of how everyone responded. Everyone came out juiced. Yeah, sassy. A real attitude."

    And just what did they see on that Thursday tape that could lead to a repeat of last season?

    "You see people accepting just-do-your-job, real internalized, don't get excited about anyone else, don't really get excited when anyone else makes a play. You can see when people start to get tired, we practice real fast, you see when people start to get tired things break down. Things are going to happen on offense, this is a high-potent offense league. So things are going to happen, but the key to a great defense is how you respond. Last year, looking at the film, we didn't have that. We didn't have it Thursday. But we showed we had it today."

    "They're doing a good job. They're doing a very good job," Fitzgerald said later when Arnfelt's observations were passed along to him. "They're gaining on it. They've got an attitude about them. You know, spring ball, you're going to have that ebb and flow. The offense is going to have a good day, and they did. They kicked the hind butts of our defense on Thursday. But snapshot on the field, the shoe's on the other foot right now."

    IN PARTICULAR: "I thought I saw some stuff from our defensive line that I was hoping to see, especially with a young man like (redshirt freshman end) Deonte Gibson," Fitzgerald also said. "I thought he made an impact today. You go in and watch the video. But he's a guy who jumped out to me. I saw (redshirt freshman tackle) C.J. Robbins make a play. I see Brian Arnfelt really leading that group. (Sophomore tackle) Chance Carter's really coming on along with (junior tackle) Will Hampton, and (junior end) Tyler Scott to me is on the cusp of being a breakout guy nationally.  He's got some special qualities. I like that group."

    A SUBTLE CHANGE: Somewhere in the (again, if you will) third quarter of the scrimmage, quarterback Kain Colter got flushed from the pocket, rolled left, rolled back right, resisted the urge to bolt and finally hooked up with Tony Jones for an apparent 43-yard touchdown pass that was erased by a penalty. Two plays later, on second-and-nine, his pocket again broke down, and here he stepped up, stayed put once more and found Rashad Lawrence for 23 yards and a first down.  

    "I noticed that last year, a lot of times I scrambled to run," he would say when his patience in the pocket was mentioned to him. "I watched (Eagle quarterback) Michael Vick a lot, I watched film of a lot of quarterbacks in the league, and one thing I noticed from them is they scrambled to throw first. Michael Vick a lot of times will make an amazing move and break the pocket, and he has his eyes downfield. That's where a lot of big plays comes from because sometimes the defense breaks down or bites up on you on the run. So one thing I've been focusing on is, once I get out of the pocket, keep my eyes downfield and hopefully make some plays."

    But isn't not-running against his instinct?

    "It is. But I feel as a quarterback, especially with all these play makers around me, my job is to just manage the game and get the ball to these guys because they're going to make big plays, they're going to boost my stats when I get them the ball. You know, maybe in high school I felt I had to run, I had to be the guy to make the play. But now that I've got all these great athletes around me, I can just break the pocket, dump it down and let them go make a play. That's something I'm going to focus on."

    Now the apparent touchdown to Jones is remembered.

    "That's something we're going to develop with me, Tony, Kyle (Prater), Rashad. That's something we work on. A lot of times protection's going to break down and, with a mobile quarterback, you've got to be ready to make a move and go. I feel that's where a lot of big plays happen. I came to the sideline after that, I said, 'Be ready when I scramble out to get open and make a play. I'm going to look for you.' It's tough for a DB to cover more than 10 seconds. So if you're out there, you drop back for five seconds, now you're scrambling, it's going to be tough to stay with them."

    THE MINDSET: Colter, as we have noted along the way this spring, has grasped the mantle of team leader and pinned it securely to his shoulders. He again touched on that fact Saturday, explaining: "I feel as a quarterback, when things go wrong, or things aren't going the way you want, you have to be the one that raises the level and gets the guys going again. I'm happy to be the guy that the offense and the team looks to when things are going down. I want to be the guy that goes out there and makes the game-changing play or helps the team get momentum back. I feel that's the biggest thing I learned from Dan (Persa). He did that all last year and his junior year. I learned a lot from him."

    NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Wide receiver Kyle Prater, the Proviso West grad and highly-regarded transfer from USC, produced no highlight moments on Saturday. But later he did meet the cameras and the microphones for the first time since he officially joined the 'Cats last Monday. Some outtakes:

    *On his appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility: "I don't really know the status of what's going on. I'm just worrying about what's going on (here). That's helping my team get better and focusing on the task at hand. That's me getting better and studying the playbook and comprehending everything."

    *On Colter's comment earlier in the week that he has to prove himself to his new teammates: "When you're a freshman, you have to prove yourself off the top. So I feel I'm doing that again by coming in as a transfer. But as long as I come out here and earn my teammates' respect and have fun and show them that I'm a great character, everything's going to be all right."

    *On how he plans to earn that respect: "Just being me. I'm not different from them. I'm just coming out here and staying humble and making everything about us. It's not about me. It's always going to be about the team, and I'm going to keep it that way."

    *On practicing for the first time last Monday: "I wasn't much nervous. I was anxious. I was just ready to get back on the field. I'd been gone for so long, I was just ready to get back out there."

    *On getting clocked by safety Jimmy Hall, whose hit after a Prater catch left the receiver on all fours and in need of ministration: "Coach Fitzgerald joked around with me and said, 'Welcome back.' No. That was a great play by Jimmy. That was a great hit by him. But sometimes you've got to go up and make those plays. That's the type of player I am. Fearless. So I'm going to go make those plays."

    *On having to master a new offense in a new environment: "I like to get thrown into the fire and working under pressure. You can learn better that way. So the mistakes I make, I'm going to learn from them. I never make the same mistake twice."

    *On the expectations surrounding him: "I'm always optimistic. I always set the bar high for anything I do."

    AND FINALLY: The 'Cats exited Saturday's scrimmage with no apparent injuries.

     














    BLOG: Spring Fever

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    THE FACTOID: The 'Cats practiced in full gear Thursday morning. "It's great to be back playing football," Pat Fitzgerald later said. "Having two weeks off (for exams and spring break), we talked about it as coaches yesterday, we can't wait to work through these next two days with the good and the bad and just teach and coach. I think we're in pretty good cardio shape. We're not in calloused football shape yet. . . Hopefully by this time next week we will be."

    THE PLAN: On Saturday, for the first time this spring, the 'Cats will scrimmage. Fitzgerald's hope is that it goes for 100 plays.

    SIGHT SEEN: Kain Colter delivered the pass toward wide receiver Kyle Prater, the highly-regarded transfer from USC. This was some 90 minutes into Thursday's practice and now here came sophomore safety Jimmy Hall, who just drilled Prater in the sternum. Down the receiver went, down on all fours, and when he rose long seconds later and after administration from a trainer, there behind him were some remnants of his breakfast. But here he jogged back to his teammates, got a smile and a high five from Fitzgerald, and for the rest of the morning showed no ill effects as he took his normal reps.

    "They ran a little Cover Two and he got around the corner and, well, it's one of those throws you're probably gonna have to take a little shot," Colter later said when asked about the play. "But he made the catch. Hopefully (in the future) I'll get it on him a little more back shoulder. But he made the catch and got the wind knocked out of him a little bit. But he popped right back up."
            
    "I think it's just wonderful for Kyle to play football," Fitzgerald said with a big grin. "I made fun of him. 'First time you've been hit in about 48 months.' Good. It was great. I'm really happy for him to experience those things. He's learning how to be a football player again. It's been a long road for him."

    THE QUARTERBACK: He is, by virtue of his position, the most important of all the 'Cats, and so the eyes are interested and follow Kain Colter as he moves through practices. Here, in one scene, running back Cermak Bland busts a draw play for a touchdown, and there is Colter dashing 40 yards down the field to congratulate him with a series of head slaps. Here, in another scene, Trevor Siemian is choreographing the offense, and there is Colter 10 yards behind him and staring intently. Here, in one last scene, the action is momentarily paused, and there is Colter slaloming among his offensive lineman and exchanging words with those men who protect him.

    We cannot recall similar scenes from last fall and so we wonder later about this change, which clearly reflect Colter as a leader-in-action. "Last season," he will say, "Dan (Persa) was here and I kind of had to take a back seat and fit in where I could, whether it was receiver or running back. This time, Dan, Drake (Dunsmore, the superback), Jeremy (Ebert, the wide receiver), all those guys are gone and it's time for me to step up in the leadership role and take the team over."

    So he feels freer now that Persa has graduated?

    "I don't know if it's so much me feeling more free. But I felt you had a guy who was All Big Ten, a guy who had been here five years, and I didn't want to overstep my territory. There is just something about being the starting quarterback, you can control the whole offense, and the whole team for that matter. Everybody looks to you, whether you realize it or not, everybody's looking to you about where to go. Dan did a great job with that and me stepping in as a freshman and sophomore, I was still trying to learn my way around things. But I was able to pick his brain a little bit and as I came into this season I was able to feel like I'm going to be the starting quarterback and have control of the offense and have guys looking up to me. Now, as far as having football knowledge, I can help them out. I'm just trying to lead by example. If a guy sees me working hard, I feel that might give him a better chance to work hard and do the right things."

    So he's consciously paying more attention now to doing those things a leader must do?

    "I think so. I think as a freshman and sophomore, I'm paying a little bit of attention to me and doing what I can do. I'm trying to make the plays I can make and to show I can get on the field. Now that I've gotten on the field and shown I can make plays, I can try to help these young guys along and show them what to do and help them get better and focus on them a little bit more."

    NO SURPRISE HERE: Colter's new demeanor is mentioned to Fitzgerald and immediately he says, "I've noticed that with every one of our quarterbacks. As the incumbent or the previous quarterback matriculates out of the program, there's just that next step that happens. Kain has always had, I think, a belief system about himself. He has a confidence, a belief in himself. But he's always been very, very respectful of Dan. Now that Dan's matriculated out of the program, he looks at it as it's his role to be that guy. And he should be. And he is."

    And just how important is it that he assumes that role?

    "It was happening last year from the standpoint of, when he got thrust into the starting role, it happened. He assumed it, but he was just very respectful to Dan, if that makes sense. If you were to poll our entire football team and say, 'Do you have 100 percent confidence and belief that Kain Colter can lead us to a Rose Bowl championship?' it would be 100 percent yes. So he's got that kind of respect. That natural progression just happened. It happened when C.J. (Bacher) took over, when Mike (Kafka) took over, when Danny took over. Now Kain."

    QUICKLY NOTED: Siemian, Colter's backup, rode into the conversation on the coattails of that observation, and of him Fitzgerald said, "He's just growing. He's in the mix now. Last year, when all of a sudden he got thrust into the action when Danny was out early, I think that sweet taste of experience really motivated him. He did a great job in the winter. You can see his physique is completely different from when he showed up here as a pencil neck as a freshman. He looks so much better. He's more fluid running. Mechanically, he's using his lower body so much more when he's throwing. Leadership wise, he's just gaining more confidence. When you get more confidence, you're willing to step out a little bit, be the bell cow. He's gaining on that.". . . This time of year, Fitzgerald is normally (and understandably) reticent when asked to single out individuals who have impressed him with their performances. It is, after all, still early. But Thursday, when asked just that when it came to his defense, he mentioned linemen Tyler Scott and Brian Arnfelt; the linebacking trio of David Nwabuisi, Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo; and safety Ibraheim Campbell. Asked specifically if redshirt freshman corner Nick VanHoose, who has looked good, has a shot at a starting job, he said, "Sure. Anyone of those guys does right now. It's open competition."

    AND FINALLY: Last year Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten title game behind quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred in as a post-graduate from North Carolina State. Now the Badgers have signed on Danny O'Brien, a post-graduate from Maryland, who will be eligible immediately while pursuing a master's in a program not offered by the Terps. "If I were Bret (Bielema, the Badger coach), I'd do the same thing. I have no problem with that," Fitzgerald said when asked about this, and then he smiled. "I'm actually going to see him tonight at the Wisconsin High School Coaches Clinic. I'll congratulate him on his free agent pickup."

    Northwestern Honored Again By Lapchick Study

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    For the third-consecutive year, Northwestern's football program has earned specific recognition from among its 2011 bowl-bound peers by an APR/GSR study conducted by Dr. Richard Lapchick at the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at UCF.

    In a study that looked at overall Academic Progress Rate (APR) and Graduation Success Rate (GSR) scores with regards to race, Lapchick said "Northwestern and Notre Dame would have played for the National Championship if there was a national championship game for Graduation Success Rate among bowl teams. Both teams graduated at least 94 percent of football student-athletes and at least 92 percent of African-American football student-athletes."

    In the most recent data available from the NCAA, Northwestern owns a 94 percent GSR for its overall football student-athlete population. That number is inclusive of a 92 percent GSR for African-American football student-athletes and a 96 percent GSR for white football student-athletes.

    Going further, Lapchick observed that "Northwestern and Rutgers would contend for the National Championship if there was a national championship for APR scores, with APR scores of 993 and 988, respectively."

    The Lapchick study previously pitted Northwestern and Notre Dame in its GSR title game in 2010 while NU and Navy earned the Lapchick Bowl berths in 2009.

    Football Players Participate in 'Cats in the Classroom

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    In conjunction with last week's Paint Evanston Purple festivities, as well as Evanston Day at Ryan Field last Saturday, Northwestern football players took to three local elementary schools--St. Athanasius, Lincolnwood, and Kingley--to participate in the 'Cats in the Classroom initiative.

    Sophomore punter Brandon Williams took time out to detail the Wildcats' visit to St. A's which is located just one block away from Ryan Field.

    Photo Gallery

    Watch Video of the 'Cats at Lincolnwood Elementary

    After being told about an opportunity to share with grade school age students at St. Athanasius, five of my teammates and I were eager to sign up. To be honest, we expected to be sharing to a smaller group of maybe 30 or 50 students so you can imagine our surprise when finding out that we were to be a large part of the school's first yearly assembly. At first, no one was sure about talking to more like 350 students, but once we arrived at St. A's, we realized we were in good hands.

    Mrs. Castagna, the principal, invited us into her office when we arrived at the school after a short walk down Ashland Avenue from Ryan Field. None of us had been called to the principal's office in years, but after some jokes about us being in trouble, we were introduced to what would be happening in the assembly.

    Mrs. Castagna shared with us the school's theme this year of, "Called to Learn, Love and Lead," something that resounded with each one of us as members not only of the Northwestern football team, but also as students at a prestigious academic institution. We have understood this idea from the moment we stepped foot in Evanston knowing that learning takes priority over our athletic careers, but also that learning is not limited to merely academic knowledge, but also includes our social lives. Learning to love over 100 teammates as a family and learning to lead, not only on the field but also in the community. It's safe to say we have learned a lot.

    Jeff Budzien, Jake Gregus, Pat Hickey, Chris Gradone, Steve Flaherty and I took our seats in the front of the gymnasium as the students poured in. Ranging from kindergarteners to eighth graders and arranged by age, they slowly filled the basketball court from front to back. Mrs. Castagna kicked off the assembly by introducing the year's theme and welcomed the students. The student council then asked us questions about aspects of being part of a team. We were able to share with them everything from how we balance school and athletics, to how we deal with issues within our team. The students listened attentively and, after the student council finished with their list of questions, eagerly asked us about our positions on the team and about how much we could bench press. Since two of us are punters, two more kickers and a long snapper, we allowed Jake Gregus (a defensive end) to answer and his response of 350 pounds, resulted in the loudest applause of the day.

    After we shared with the students, we were able to spend time autographing posters for them and talking to some of the faculty. We were excited to learn about the football game being played on Ryan Field directly following our game against Eastern Illinois this upcoming Saturday between St. A's and Wilmette Catholic. The game was all part of Evanston Day, Saturday, Sept. 10, which is all part of the larger Paint Evanston Purple campaign that included a pep rally on Thursday and participation from numerous Evanston businesses.

    The support from the city of Evanston towards Northwestern Athletics is something that not only is appreciated, but something that is needed. We are so lucky to be in a city like Evanston where we are supported and being able to step out of the bubble of college football to share with grade school children about something bigger than athletics is something that we all were excited to be able to do. We realize the importance of our being actively involved in the community and that our participation could never come close the support we've felt from the community towards us. The 'Cats in the Classroom program, which is in conjunction with the Paint Evanston Purple campaign, is just one way that we are able to give back to the community that we have been blessed to receive so much from. We appreciate every opportunity to be a part of this amazing town and look forward to seeing everyone at Ryan Field.

    Go 'Cats and Go Redhawks!

    VIDEO: Kafka Looks to Soar with Eagles

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    Former Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka had an outstanding performance for the Philadelphia Eagles last night in a NFL preseason game against Pittsburgh. Playing the fourth quarter, Kafka completed 14-of-19 passes for 160 yards and 2 touchdowns, earning a quarterback rating of 133.7 -- by far the highest of any Eagles quarterback in the game.

    Camp Kenosha Update (Wednesday, Aug. 17)

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    Wednesday Morning Photo Gallery

    The first of two Wednesday practice sessions began promptly at 8:50 a.m. on the fields of UW-Parkside under sunny skies and temperatures in the high 70s to low 80s. A forecasted rain event was gobbled up by the lake, keeping the Kenosha weather perfect-as-usual for the 15 period workout. Today's observations and musings:

    Three Wildcats (Vince Browne, Jordan Mabin and Al Netter) took "veteran days" for Wednesday morning, electing to take the session off and help coach up their position groups. For every 12 starts a player makes in his career, he earns one "veteran day" off practice. So for example, three-year offensive line starter Ben Burkett (39 starts) has three such off-days accumulated for this preseason. The trio will suit up for tonight's second practice.

    Coach Fitz: "We were real physical this morning. We put the ball on the ground and got about 40 plays in. We'll focus on the kicking game more tonight." On the veterans' days: "The guy's legs are cooked and we're just grinding through camp right now. You're always going to give your veterans some time off, but the veteran's day puts the responsibility on them to communicate to their position coach when their legs need a break."

    Brian Mulroe's Purple Nurples team won this year's offseason competition known as the Wildcat Games. Their prize is significantly different than in the past when winners were excused from the conditioning test (and usually forced to sit it out after Eric Peterman's team insisted on running it anyway after the inaugural Games). The Nurples received VIP cards that get them to the front of line in the dining hall and for treatment while also getting them cart rides from the middle of the Kenosha practice fields back up to the locker room after practice. Now THAT is a valuable prize. The Nurples were exceptionally generous with their time with the Special Olympics this year, accumulating most of their winning margin through that particular community service activity.

    VIDEO: Redshirt Freshman Center Brandon Vitabile talks about his Camp Kenosha experience and some of his favorite pastimes



    In player and plays of note from Wednesday morning...

    * Dan Persa threw his vintage darts all day long, complete with the nose-down spiral that found its way to the numbers seemingly every time.

    * During interior running drills, an unseen-from-my-angle D-lineman bruised his way into the pile so ferociously that he threw an offensive lineman backward into Mike Trumpy for the tackle. Moments later, Kevin Watt bulled his way around the end for a TFL.

    * Evan Watkins was deadly on downfield throws during 7-on-7 drills. "He's having a bombs away practice" one special teams member commented from the sidelines.

    * Also during 7-on-7 play, Trevor Siemian floated a pass down the sideline that Pierre Youngblood-Ary fought threw two defenders to run under and grab for a sweet connection.

    * In TEAM full-go action, the physicality picked up even more. Mike Jensen made an ear-ringing block on the outside that sprung a teammate on a flat route, then more great blocking allowed Evan Watkins to find a seam and run un-touched 60 yards up the sideline (screaming a Ric Flair-esque "WOOOO" as he rumbled by my position beyond the chains).

    * The defensive line blew up a screen play at one point while Kain Colter was taking reps, prompting the entire defensive sideline to chant "Kain's not Abel!"

    * On an option play, linebacker Collin Ellis disrupted the pitch enough that Tyler Scott was able to leap in the backfield and intercept the ball. "Tyler is a freak. If something freakish is happening, it was probably him," said the specialists.  

    After
    some pool time this afternoon and likely a quick nap, the team will head to a local high school this evening for a turf-field practice that is completely closed to the public and the media. On Thursday, ESPN's DirecTV satellite bus will be at Northwestern's practice at UW-Parkside. NU is one of 19 schools the bus is visiting this preseason; the Wildcats will be featured on ESPNEWS and other ESPN platforms throughout the afternoon on Thursday.

    Camp Kenosha Update (Tuesday, Aug. 16)

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    Camp Kenosha Aug. 16, 2011, Photo Gallery

    After being out of town for the first two sessions of Camp Kenosha Monday, I made my way up to UW-Parkside for the first time in 2011 for Tuesday morning's single session. The walk down the gravel path leading from the main Parkside athletic building to Northwestern's very own side-by-side practice fields always strikes me as the official beginning of football season. Here are some observations from today's session:

    It was another perfect weather day in Kenosha, something the Wildcats have grown accustomed to in recent years. Temperatures were in the low 80s with virtually no clouds to be seen and a nice breeze rolling down the spectating hill and across the grass.

    VIDEO: Northwestern freshmen talk about their Camp Kenosha experience



    You want to know what makes Northwestern's practice the most high-energy workout in the nation? Picture 54-year-old offensive coordinator Mick McCall leading his QB group from one drill to the next in a dead sprint before intentionally leaping into a barrel-roll somersault to punctuate the new location, then jumping to his feet yelling "Too Much Kenosha!" That'll fire anyone up for what would be a pretty mundane passing drill at other schools.

    In actual play and player observations, a few plays stuck out. During 7-on-7 passing, Dan Persa hit Jeremy Ebert down the seam on a play that should be very familiar to Northwestern fans by now. Evan Watkins twice found Brendan Barber during the drill, once on a great touch floater over the leap of Demetrius Dugar and again in the back of the end zone. On the very first play of TEAM with full-go tackling, Jordan Mabin read a play perfectly and stopped a run deep in the backfield before several plays later stepping in front of a Kain Colter pass for a pick (Colter would run Mabin out of bounds himself).

    After practice, Coach Fitz had new starting center Brandon Vitabile break down the team huddle. He correctly pronounced his name vuh-TOB-uh-lay for those of you pronouncing at home.

    More than one support staffer commented on the "intriguing" freshman class this year, here experiencing their first Camp Kenosha. Whether or not they know where they are, some great competition is going on among the team. Stay tuned to NUsports.com for video interviews from our two-man crew here all week gathering interviews for the website and material for season two of The Pat Fitzgerald Show.

    Also, view some images from today's practice courtesy of NUsports.com. Tomorrow's action gets underway with a morning practice here at UW-Parkside before a closed-to-the-media (and everyone else) night practice.

    Former 'Cat Jason Wright Embarking on New Journey

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    If you follow former Northwestern running back Jason Wright on twitter (@whoisjwright), you've known for a while that big changes are on the horizon for the seven-year NFL veteran. On July 12 Wright tweeted that movers would be at his home soon, thanking God for his seven years in the NFL and the great people that came with it.

    By the time the Arizona Republic officially reported last night that Wright had decided to hang up his cleats, the two-time first-team Academic All-American and his family already had completed a cross-country road trip back to Chicago, where the Republic reports Wright will attend the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

    In many ways, Wright is the ultimate Northwestern Wildcat student-athlete. During his on-the-field career from 2000-03, he recorded a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons and totaled 35 total touchdowns. At the 2003 Motor City Bowl, in his final game as a 'Cat, Wright rushed for a bowl record 237 yards while also setting records for yards per carry (11.3), all-purpose yards (336) and longest kickoff return (88 yards). His NFL career began as an undrafted free agent in 2004 when he was cut by the 49ers and caught on in Atlanta. He then made stops in Cleveland and, finally, Arizona.

    Randy Walker called Wright the most complete running back he'd ever coached. He didn't have breakaway speed, but used his quick feet, athleticism and field vision to pile up yardage. He was a gifted receiver out of the backfield and a solid, consistent blocker. His all-around ability on the field mirrors his all-around persona off it -- and that is what makes us so proud to call Jason Wright a Wildcat.

    For one thing, Wright can sing. Really, really well. He occasionally performed the National Anthem prior to NU men's basketball games, and even before a session at the 2003 Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament in Chicago. He sang at Randy Walker's memorial service, and he was well known for lifting his voice in song at FCA meetings on campus.

    As evidenced by the aforementioned Academic All-America honors, Wright is super intelligent and a gifted communicator. He scored in the 92nd percentile on the MCAT exam in 2003. That same year, he delivered the player's keynote address at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon. He recently penned a blog entry on the lockout from the player's perspective for ESPN.com, and shared his thoughts on faith in relation to the Jim Tressel situation at Ohio State at TheGospelCoalition.org.

    The theme throughout everything when talking about Wright is his faith. Follow him on Twitter or read his writings, and that becomes clear. I spoke with former NU running back Noah Herron for a football game program story in 2004, and Herron talked about the important role the FCA played in helping him and Wright through rough times and injuries, renewing their passions for the game of football. Certainly faith propels Wright in all he does.

    When Wright and his wife, Tiffany, and their young daughter set out from Phoenix last week for their drive back to Chicago, he tweeted along the way -- really giving a sense of how they made the trip into a journey. Follow along on Twitter @whoisjwright for the next step in his journey...we will be!
    Five incoming Northwestern freshmen took time out from summer school and workouts Saturday, July 16, to lend a strong hand at a rummage sale at St. Nicholas Church in Evanston.

    Max Champan, Mark Szott, Shane Mertz, Drew Smith and Treyvon Green carried furniture, boxes and bags for neighbors of St. Nick's at its annual rummage sale. The group also helped folks load trucks, vans and cars with items, even helping some of the St. Nick's people with their own items as well.

    "Their help made our jobs so much easier, and our West Town neighbors will now have a load of useful items that will make their lives easier," said Lori Goodman of St. Nicholas Church. "It was a great day and we could not have asked for better volunteers."

    While not officially related, the freshmen footballers' good use of strength last Saturday is an apt preview for the Northwestern Chapter of Uplifting Athletes "Lift For Life" taking place at 6 p.m. CT Friday, July 22, at Ryan Field (in case of rain, it will be held in the Trienens Hall indoor facility just north of Ryan Field). Nearly every Wildcat who is in Evanston for the summer will participate in this wholly student-athlete run event, which was officially announced in this NUsports.com release and benefits the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation dedicated to finding a cure for Neimann-Pick Disease Type C, or NP-C. More background on Uplifting Athletes and the NU chapter is available at NUsports.com.

    The Lift for Life is open to the public -- which is highly encouraged to attend. First, fans will watch the student-athletes compete in a bracket-style tournament of eight teams similar to the NU football Winning Edge competition. Events will include an obstacle course and bench press competition among others. After the champion is crowned, kids in attendance will be invited down to the field for tug of war and to race against the Wildcats. Everyone at that time is invited to Walker Terrace for a BBQ and Meet and Greet with the student-athletes.

    Spectators will watch from the home stands and are encouraged to stick around and eat afterwards. Admission and the BBQ are free, but donations to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation are highly encouraged.

    "We will be accepting donations at the front gate as well as for the food," said NU senior Ricky Weina, who is helping run the Lift for Life. "There will be t-shirts and wristbands for sale, and a "penny war" style collection for the bench press competition. We also accept online donations, just choose a player and donate in their name."

    If you have questions, leave them in the comments and we'll find answers for you from our Uplifting Athletes!