Northwestern has been through dark times in its football program history. From holding the FBS record for consecutive losses in a season from 1979 to 1982, to losing a 35-3 lead at home in the 4th quarter.
The Wildcats haven’t been known as a football powerhouse but the tide may be beginning to change this season. Northwestern is off to its third 3-0 start in the past five seasons and have done so by beating three consecutive opponents (Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College) from BCSconferences.
While the team has gotten off to an impressive start, head coach Pat Fitzgerald feels his team hasn’t peaked and the best is yet to come. The Wildcats will face South Dakota this Saturday at Ryan Field but the focus, as it has been this season, rests primarily on the team itself.
“I think that’s the hallmark of this team that’s embracing the journey,” Fitzgerald said after practice on Tuesday. “I don’t think you ever take your hat off and say ‘Hey, we’ve arrived.’ We’re able to now get into our routine.”
Fitzgerald has been adamant about his team’s focus this season as there has been mental lapses on both offense and defense through three games. In the Wildcats opener, Northwestern allowed Syracuse to score four consecutive touchdowns after leading 35-13.
Against Boston College last Saturday, the offense turned the ball over twice and failed to score a touchdown while in the red zone four times. However, the old cliché of good teams’ always finding ways to win hasn’t been truer than with the Wildcats thus far.
“Who we are and what we are as a program in all three phases, benefits us,” Fitzgerlad said. “We have to buy into it at practice. There’s no way we can go out and do what we do in a game unless we embrace it, that’s owned and operated by [these] young men. To this point, I think we’re finally kind of two steps in to this journey of understanding what it takes to be a successful team.”
Although Northwestern hasn’t garnered the national attention of other Big Ten teams such as Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, they are only one of three undefeated teams in the conference. Also, no other team in the Big Ten has begun its season facing three consecutive BCS conference opponents.
The Wildcats have benefited this season with the early success of its defense and running game, two things that were heavily questioned before the season began. Northwestern has had two running backs rush for over 100 yards in consecutive games and its defense has been stagnant against the run and held it last two opponents to only 13 points.
Another note that has gone unnoticed has been three consecutive players have won Big Ten player of the week honors for their respective positions. Versatile punt/kick returner and running back Venric Mark won his award for his contributions against Syracuse; linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo had an impressive effort against Vanderbilt and kicker Jeff Budzien recently won his award for tying a school-record five completed field goals.
“I think we’re gaining on where we want to be as a program,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s a tremendous sense of urgency [of] understanding the opportunity this team has. We want to get better and when you’ve got that [attitude], you’ve got a chance. We’re a work in progress but we’re working our tails off to get there.”
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