Nov. 29, 2013
Skip Myslenski files his final Friday preview of the season ahead of Northwestern's rivalry showdown with Illinois.
THE END: The season closes for the `Cats with their Saturday game at Illinois and, with that, the curtain comes down on the careers of 14 of them. It was no surprise, then, that Pat Fitzgerald was asked often this week about this team and his senior class and how he would remember them both.
"It's easy to get down as a fan when you lose games," he said in an answer that mirrored and was representative of many others. "But if you truly understand football, you've seen a group of guys fight their tails off.
"They haven't been successful, and I think they're incredibly motivated to be successful with a win. But you can't fault these guys for the effort level they've played with. You can't fault these guys for the way that they've stuck together. I think that will be, if you look at the legacy of the seniors, that will probably be their legacy. They kept the group together with the things that we faced this year which, quite frankly, were pretty difficult and pretty challenging. I'm proud of them. I'm really proud of the job they've done, and I fully expect that they'll play well on Saturday."
The `Cats have gone bowling after each of the last five seasons. That, of course, will not be the case this year. "I'm not going to enjoy it except for family time. I'll enjoy that," Fitzgerald said when asked how strange it will be to not be preparing for a post-season game. But that will free him and his staff up to recruit full bore, which they will do for the two weeks that immediately follow Saturday's affair. Then, when a dead period sets in, they'll come in off the road and meet.
"We'll take that week and we'll really take a hard look, kind of big picture some things, and really sit there and--for lack of a better term--brainstorm as a staff for probably half-a-day on some things I'll want to discuss with the guys," said Fitzgerald, explaining what lies ahead for him and his coaches.
"Then we'll probably grind out cut-ups and things of that nature and look at some of our base things on tape, which will then be the basis of some of our research for February and March and April on what we're going to do. Then probably the 20th (of December) or so, we'll take a two-week break for the holidays and then come back in. The first week of January is when the guys start school back up. We'll have a couple discretionary weeks to start. We'll talk academic goals and off-season goals for the guys in one-on-one meetings, set the plans of action for them. Then the new team starts. They're in the weight room, the third week of January is when we'll really start full fledge."
The 'Cats take on Illinois for the 107th time Saturday, the most they've faced any opponent. The two teams have met every year since 1927.
The 'Cats will be looking to avoid going winless in the Big Ten for the first time since 1998, Gary Barnett's last season as their coach.
Saturday marks the last game for place kicker Jeff Budzien, who is going out in style. He leads the Big Ten in field goals made (20) and field goal percentage (90.9 percent), and for his career is a perfect 132-of-132 on PATs. He needs one more field goal to set a Cats' single-season record, which he now shares with Brian Gowins (1997) and Amado Villarreal (2008).
One oft-ignored benefit of going to a bowl game is the extra practices it affords a team, which often uses them to coach up redshirt freshmen and other future contributors. "You can't make up that time," Fitzgerald said when asked about not having them available. "But you get what you've earned and we haven't earned the opportunity to have those practices. So it is what it is."
Illinois snapped a 20-game Big Ten losing streak when it toppled Purdue last Saturday. In that Boilermaker game, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase became just the 10th player in conference history to reach 10,000 career yards of total offense. For the season he is 256-of-385 (66.5 percent) for 2,965 yards and 19 touchdowns. But he has also thrown a dozen interceptions.
"I'm really impressed with not only the way that Nathan's played this year, but throughout his career. He's been one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten," Fitzgerald said of him.
Running back Josh Ferguson is both his leading receiver (47 catches) and the team's leading rusher (5.3 yards per-carry). But the Illini's most-combustible threat is converted safety Steve Hull, who's averaging 18.2 yards on his 46 catches. . . In Big Ten games only, the Illini defense ranks 11th in scoring defense (41.3 ppg), 11th in total defense (498.6 ypg), and 12th-and-dead-last in rushing defense (296.4 ypg) and interceptions (two).
AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, on the future: "I believe we have a really good plan set for the off-season on how we're going to go about our business the minute we get back here in January and kind of hit the ground running. We've got a plan to get this thing back to where it should be, and where it belongs, and where we have been. So it's not like the plan is going to be changed that much. But there's definitely some changes that are going to be made because of the lack of success we had consistently on the field this year."
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