EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern is one of three undefeated teams remaining in the Big Ten and the biggest surprise of the league this fall.
Pat Fitzgerald is the second-longest tenured coach in the conference and his Wildcats are scrappy as usual. There’s a reason his team is 4-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1996. A veteran quarterback, plus a hard-nosed defense has led the Wildcats’ to No. 19 in the AP Poll, which is their highest ranking since 2017.
For the past three games the Wildcats have found a way to claw themselves to victory and Fitzgerald believes it will benefit his team down the stretch.
“We found different ways to win, which is a hallmark of a good football team,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not always going to go the way that you planned.”
In hindsight Northwestern appears to be light years ahead of where the team was at this time last season. Although Fitzgerald doesn’t like to compare his teams, but he does acknowledge that there’s something special about this year’s version of the Wildcats.
“I think this group is having fun right now and I think they’re having fun for each other,” he said. “It’s a great group that a coach can be pretty thankful for.”
Despite the fact that the Wildcats have won games running and throwing the ball, the 45-year old coach still doesn’t believe his offense has put together a complete game.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey has thrown for 381 yards and five touchdowns over the past two wins. The Indiana transfer is also well protected up front and Northwestern has only allowed four sacks through four games. Not to mention the unit has been successful with a balanced attack, averaging 174 yards on the ground, 180 through the air and 28 points per game.
Fitzgerald is a former linebacker and a defensive-minded coach, so it’s no surprise the Wildcats have one of the best defenses in the country. Northwestern is in the top-10 in the FBS in scoring, rushing and pass efficiency defense, which makes Fitzgerald proud of his alma mater’s accomplishments.
Edge rusher Eku Leota has been a terror anchoring the defensive line, with three sacks, including two and a forced fumble last week against Purdue. Fitzgerald feels his linebackers have been the most consistent group of all, but the secondary has been impressive also. The Wildcats back four are full of ballhawks, with five interceptions from the unit, including three by Brandon Joseph. The defense plays selfless, which helps the Wildcats thrive and keeps them in games.
“They don’t really care who gets the credit, they just care about who makes the right move, the right play to make sure the defense is successful,” Fitzgerald said. “I think they play with great effort.”
Fitzgerald credits the longevity of his staff and the plethora of veterans on his squad as reasons for his team’s fast start. Still, Northwestern will face its’ biggest test of the season thus far when No. 10 Wisconsin travels to town this Saturday. The Wildcats haven’t beat a top-10 team since 2011, but their coach knows they’ll have their hands full against the Badgers.
Regardless of the matter Fitzgerald plans on having his team ready for the matchup, and believes everything they’ve been through this season will help in a game of this magnitude.
“I think we’ve won some close games, so I think this group is pretty well battle-tested,” he said. “I think we’ve been in four quarter games and we should take confidence from that, then we can go the distance.”