With the Big Ten West Division title already secured and the trip to Indianapolis for the conference title game already booked, might Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald ease off the gas a bit and rest some key players when his Wildcats face the Gophers on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium?
Not a chance, Fitzgerald says.
“It matters to us. Every game matters to us,” he said. “It’s a Big Ten West game. We’ve talked about going with a championship approach now for a number of weeks, mentalitywise, in the way we prepare and the way that we play.”
Fitzgerald’s Wildcats are in a unique position. Last Saturday, they beat Iowa 14-10 in Iowa City to improve to 6-4 overall and 6-1 in the Big Ten. At the end of the game, Fitzgerald found out both Wisconsin and Purdue had lost, meaning Northwestern had clinched the West title and a trip to Indy. The Badgers and Boilermakers are 4-3 in the conference, and one of those two mathematically could tie Northwestern for the division title (Wisconsin and Purdue play Saturday), but the Wildcats beat both teams and hold any tiebreaker.
In addition, the Wildcats’ victory at Iowa clinched bowl eligibility, making Northwestern the first team to win its division but go 0-3 in nonconference games.
“When you get into divisional play, the only thing that matters is if you win,” Fitzgerald added. “Champions win football games.”
Northwestern takes a seven-game road winning streak into TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald sees keeping that streak going as important.
“This is our seniors’ last road game in the Big Ten. It’s a big game,” he said. “We’ve got goals ahead of us that we want to achieve, and for us to achieve those goals, we’ve got to go 1-0 this week.”
One of those goals is playing in the Rose Bowl, which would be the prize for the Wildcats if they win the Big Ten title game. As an All-America linebacker, Fitzgerald led Northwestern to Pasadena in the program’s breakthrough 1995 season, but he couldn’t play in the game because of a broken leg.
On Saturday, he expects to face the Gophers team that beat Purdue 41-10, not the one that lost 55-31 at Illinois the previous week.
“There was a definite difference in the way they played from a passion standpoint two weeks ago compared to last week,” he said. “Obviously, it was very impressive to watch how they played against Purdue. Their defense was outstanding. … We know we’re going to get their best shot.”
And Fitzgerald plans to have his Wildcats give their best shot, even with that division title already in their back pocket.
“We’ll always be pedal-down mentality here,” he said. “I’ll never take my foot off the gas. We’ll rest and recharge, or whatever you want to call it, in January.”