Late in 1991, Colorado offensive coordinator Gary Barnett took the Northwestern head coaching job, promising to “take the Purple to Pasadena.” He did just that in the 1995 season, guiding the perennially downtrodden Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl since Jan. 1, 1949.

Playing a big part in that breakthrough was All-America linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, who helped the Wildcats forge a 10-1 regular season but couldn’t play in the Rose Bowl because of a broken leg.

Fast forward 23 years, and it’s Fitzgerald who’s is trying to take the Purple to Pasadena. His Wildcats sit atop the Big Ten’s West Division with a 5-1 record, 1 ½ games ahead of a trio of pursuers at 3-2 — Iowa, Purdue and Wisconsin. Though Pasadena would require a conference title win, a trip to Indianapolis for that championship game is within reach for Northwestern.

The Big Ten West race will play out among those four teams, with Northwestern clearly in control. But first, the Wildcats (5-3 overall) jump out of conference with a chance to play national spoiler, as No. 3 Notre Dame visits Evanston on Saturday. Sure, the matchup interrupts Big Ten play, but Fitzgerald is embracing it.

“In an ideal world, you’d rather play your nonconference games earlier,” said Fitzgerald, whose 1995 team began its Cinderella run to Pasadena with a 17-15 win at Notre Dame. “But what a great opportunity for our program.”

The bigger opportunity, at least in Big Ten terms, comes the following week, when Northwestern travels to Iowa. A win over the Hawkeyes would give the Wildcats a sweep of their three pursuers and a stranglehold on the West. In that scenario, only losses in their final two games — at Minnesota and home vs. Illinois — would put their West hopes in peril.

“We’ve got to get a lot better,” said Fitzgerald, whose team lost to Duke and Akron at home and nearly lost at bottom-feeder Rutgers. “We’re not a finished product by any stretch.”

Iowa (6-2) could say the same thing. The Hawkeyes are in the middle of a three-week stretch that began with a tight 30-24 loss at Penn State, continues at Purdue on Saturday in a de facto West elimination game and finishes at Northwestern next week.

“This thing is all totally unpredictable,” said Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team finishes at Illinois and at home against Nebraska. “Every year in college football tends to be that way. This year there’s plenty of examples on why you better keep your focus on what’s in front of you.”

Two weeks ago, Purdue looked to be the darling of the West, after routing Ohio State 49-20 in West Lafayette. However, the Boilermakers (4-4) were held to a season low in points in a 23-13 loss at Michigan State last week. With home games against Iowa on Saturday and Wisconsin on Nov. 17, Purdue can make a move in the West.

“Some of these games we’re playing, if we don’t play well, it could be a very long day,” Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm said.

Wisconsin (5-3) is in the relatively unfamiliar position of not controlling its destiny in the West. The Badgers have won the past two division titles and three of the past four. They get a breather with Rutgers visiting Madison on Saturday. Then come road games at Penn State and Purdue and the finale at home against the Gophers.

“My message to the team will vary week to week, but the theme is always to make the most of your next opportunity,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. “At the end of the year, you will get what you earn.”

So far, the team earning the most in the West is Northwestern.

 

Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib. E-mail: rjohnson@startribune.com