Former Northwestern linebacker turned head coach Pat Fitzgerald unanimously won Big Ten Coach of the Year. Fitzgerald won seven Big Ten games in a row and Northwestern is 15-1 in the conference dating back to last season.
After clinching the Big Ten West division with an 8-1 record, Fitzgerald will lead the No. 21 Northwestern Wildcats (8-4) to the Big Ten Championship game against No. 6 Ohio State (11-1) on Saturday.
No Respect in Evanston
The Buckeyes are a 14-point favorite in the Big Ten Championship, but the fact the Wildcats are even in the title game is a remarkable feat itself.
Northwestern started the season 1-3. The Wildcats had lost three games in a row and lost their starting running back to a career-ending injury. Somehow, Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats turned around the season.
Northwestern beat Michigan State and Wisconsin, plus an emotional comeback win against Nebraska. The Wildcats won seven out of their last eight games with their only loss against #4 Notre Dame.
Northwestern locked up the Big Ten West with an 8-1 record to secure themselves a spot in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis, Indiana on Saturday. An upset victory against Ohio State would spoil the Buckeyes national title aspirations. Furthermore, a win would also secure Northwestern a coveted spot in the Rose Bowl.
Early Season Hair Balls
No one gave Northwestern a chance to win the Big Ten West. At best, a couple of Wildcat sympathizers slotted them in the number two hole behind Wisconsin.
The Wildcats got off to a dismal start with consecutive losses to Duke and Akron. The 39-34 loss to Akron, a MAC conference school, particularly strung.
Then things got worse for the Wildcats. Sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin announced he had to stop playing football due to a diagnosis of cervical stenosis.
Larkin was the heir apparent to Justin Jackson, one of the greatest backs in the history of Northwestern football. For four seasons, Pat Fitzgerald relied on Jackson at running back. Jackson became only the second player in Big Ten history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in four consecutive seasons joining Ron Dayne from Wisconsin.
With Jackson playing in the NFL for the LA Chargers and without Larkin, Northwestern’s running game looked dead on arrival.
Pivot to Air Cats
Fitzgerald turned to Clayton Thorson. The senior quarterback started 51 games in a row under center for the Wildcats.
In mid-season, the Cats evolved from a run-first offense to one with a lethal passing attack. Against Michigan State, Thorson lit up their secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. The next week against Nebraska, Thorson threw a career-high 455 yards and three more touchdowns.
Thorson finished the season with 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 2,675 passing yards on 251 of 416 attempts. He threw all 14 TD over his last 10 games and only two picks in his last three games.
As a player, Pat Fitzgerald anchored the defense as a linebacker. He led Northwestern to a 10-1 record and a Rose Bowl berth in 1996. Fitzgerald was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 1995 and 1996.
Fitzgerald joined Northwestern’s coaching staff in 2001 as the linebackers coach. He later assumed head recruiting duties.
Northwestern tapped Fitzgerald to become the head coach due to a tragedy. In the summer of 2006, head coach Randy Walker died unexpectedly at the age of 52 by a heart attack. Fitzgerald was the assumed successor when Walker’s contract expired, but got handed the job earlier than expected. At the age of 31, Fitzgerald became the youngest coach in Big Ten history and was the youngest coach in Division I at the time.
In 13 seasons, Fitzgerald guided the Wildcats to a 95-69 record.
On Tuesday night, Fitzgerald won Big Ten Coach of the Year by an unanimous vote. Over the last two seasons, Northwestern is 15-1 in Big Ten conference games. The sole loss occurred against Michigan, ranked #14 at the time, in Week 4.
Northwestern finished the season with an 8-1 record in conference play. Heading into the final game of the season against Illinois, they clinched the West and were aware that the winner of the Michigan and Ohio State would be waiting them for the Big Ten Championship.
Ohio State and Michigan both finished with an 8-1 record in the Big Ten East, but Ohio State clinched the East with a 62-39 blowout over Michigan. The win propelled them to the #6 ranking overall. A monster win over Northwestern will put them in contention for the fourth spot in the college football playoffs.
A win over Ohio State will send the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl. This is the first time that Northwestern has an opportunity to return to the Bowl since their magical run in 1995.
“We’ve got an unbelievable opportunity in front of us,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m fired up to take the Purple to Indy. That’s our goal every year, to win the Big Ten West. We’ve finally gotten over that hump, and now we have an opportunity, a 60-minute opportunity, to take this team to the Rose Bowl.”
While Northwestern has zero change at playing for the national championship, they can certainly play the role of spoiler for Ohio State.
History is against the Wildcats though. Ohio State is 30-1 against Northwestern since 1972. Fitzgerald is 0-2 against Urban Meyer.