Sept. 10, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
Tickets still are available to Northwestern's home opener Saturday morning at 11 a.m. CT against Illinois State. Bring your friends to Ryan Field to watch the 'Cats!
There is an adage nearly as old as the sport itself and it goes something like this. A team, a college football team, takes its biggest strides between its opening game and the one that follows. "There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that you typically make your most improvement then," says 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"Number one, because you've played a game now, you've been up to game speed, you've played against someone else and they reacted a little bit differently than you've seen in spring practice and fall camp. And you learned a lot about yourself. How you went about your routine. What you would do differently and how you can improve your play. You (as a coach) look at each unit, every position, there's a lot of room for improvement, especially in details. Little things. Finishing. . . A lot of specifics. I'm not going to go into great detail. But there's a ton of room for improvement."
"The first game," adds senior middle linebacker Nate Williams, "you get some of the cobwebs out, you see people expose themselves as players. Guys exposed what they do wrong and what they can improve on -- whether it be the mental standpoint or physical standpoint."
"I agree," concludes another senior, the offensive tackle Al Netter. "I think you kind of get into this preseason camp mode where you're going fast, but it's different when you're in an actual game situation. Once you're in a game situation, you need to carry over your technique, you need to carry over your focus, you need to carry over your intensity. It takes the first game to expose those things and find out where you need to improve."
If you've been paying any kind of attention, you've most probably heard some coach or blow-dried talking head discuss needing-to-get-up-to-game-speed. In a sport that has no exhibition games, that is what happens in an opener. That is also why it is facetious to rush-to-judgment after that one fray and why, finally, this year's 'Cats will come into better focus after their Saturday meeting at Ryan Field with Illinois State.
The Redbirds, on paper, pose little threat to the 'Cats. They are, after all, what is now called a Football Championship Subdivision team and, last week in their opener, they had to rally late to escape with a one-point win over Division II Central Missouri. But, warns Fitzgerald, "It doesn't matter what level you're at. There's great athletes, great teams. Levels are totally irrelevant. Ask Ole Miss (which earlier this season lost in double overtime to Jacksonville State, another FCS team). Ask me against New Hampshire (an FCS school which beat the 'Cats in his first season as their coach). Trust me. Fully aware. Fully aware."
Again. If you've been paying any kind of attention, you've most probably heard a coach warn that the sky was about to fall and crush his team just days before it went out and romped to a 72-point victory. But a quick look at the Redbirds shows that is not what Fitzgerald is doing here, and that they are fully capable of testing his still-unfinished 'Cats. Here's why.
They are, first of all, in the second year of a rehabilitation program under Brock Spack, who in his last stop was the defensive coordinator at Purdue. He, then, is familiar with the 'Cats and Fitzgerald and the way they like to go about their business, and that is true too with countless members of his staff. (Four of them have worked in the Big Ten and one of them, assistant head coach Jay Peterson, was on Randy Walker's staff from '99 to '03.) Then, even more importantly, their roster is littered with 11 transfers from the Big Ten (nine) and other Football Bowl Subdivision conferences (two).
"They'll be excited. They'll be fired up. We're playing a Big Ten caliber football team on Saturday," says Fitzgerald, and here he might be exaggerating slightly. But those transfers were once considered highly enough to be recruited by Big Ten schools and are now playing important roles for the Redbirds. Just consider, for one example, their rushing game. Last season it was virtually non-existent and they averaged a mere three-yards per carry. But in their win last Saturday they netted 187 yards on 40 carries (4.7 ypc) behind the work of Wisconsin transfer Erik Smith (96 on 13) and Michigan State transfer Ashton Leggett (56 on 11).
"I guarantee they won't be intimidated. We know that," Fitzgerald finally says. "We know exactly what we're getting into. You've got to learn from history. We learned from our experience against New Hampshire and from Ole Miss. It's important that we go about our business of getting better."
In addition: 'Cat superback coach Bob Heffner was the defensive and offensive line coach for the Redbirds from '81 through '87. . . Redbird quarterback Matt Brown, who went 23-of-30 for 298 yards and three touchdowns against Central Missouri, was last season's Freshman of the Year in the Missouri Valley. . . 'Cat defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been around long enough that he coached Redbird head coach Spack when the latter was playing linebacker at Purdue in the early '80s. . . Central netted just 58 rushing yards against the Redbird defense. "They've got a Big Ten defensive line," says Fitzgerald. But, and this is a big but, it ran just 13 times and strafed the Redbirds through the air, going 40-of-62 for 547 yards and six touchdowns.
And finally, on a lighter note: School is not yet back in session, which means few students are expected at Saturday's game. Still, says Williams, "There seems to be a little more buzz here and there. I think for the first time ever I got recognized at McDonald's. Both Jack (DiNardo, the defensive tackle) and I did. There were a couple guys there, 'Oh, you guys play football.' That was the first time since I've been here."
Was he wearing Northwestern gear?
"Nah. Just a tee-shirt and shorts."
Did they know exactly who he was?
"Not particularly. We're not quite there yet."
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