Northwestern saves their best for last in winning a Big Ten West title

IOWA CITY, IA - NOVEMBER 10: Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) scrambles with the ball during a Big Ten Conference football game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Iowa Hawkeyes on November 10, 2018, Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, IA. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

EVANSTON – It’s been an unusual three weeks for Pat Fitzgerald. In fact, there may never be anything quite like it again.

Two weeks ago, his Northwestern team faced No. 3 Notre Dame at home in a game that was essentially for pride. Not that a shot at an upset of a Top Five team wasn’t significant, but the 31-21 loss meant nothing to the Wildcats’ chances at a Big Ten West division title.

Last week, his team knocked off 21st ranked Iowa on the road, earning one of the two wins they’d need to clinch a spot in the conference title game. But here’s the thing – Purdue’s upset loss at Minnesota coupled with Wisconsin’s loss at Penn State took out that need. All tiebreakers belonged to the Wildcats, who clinched the title when the clock at Kinnick Stadium hit zero.

In fact, Fitzgerald gathered his team shortly after the game to give them a big surprise.

Now comes the next unusual challenge – firing up for two games that have little meaning in the standings. Of course, no game is meaningless, but the next two weeks against Minnesota on the road and Illinois at home offer up a chance for Fitzgerald to rest players before the December 1st Big Ten championship in Indianapolis.

Little chance of that happening, according to the coach, who has no intention of letting up despite the unique circumstances.

“All hands on deck, and the pedal’s down. Absolutely not,” said Fitzgerald when asked if he would consider resting players with the West division already clinched. “We’ll prepare just like we always do. We look at each game with the same process, the mentality of going ‘1-0’ each week.”

There’s nothing to say that won’t happen – especially when you look at how Northwestern has finished their last few seasons strong.

In 2018, the Wildcats have won five consecutive Big Ten games after starting their season with a disappointing 1-3 record, with their only loss coming to Notre Dame on November 3rd. In a wide-open division, that was good enough to clinch things up by November 11th, and the chances of Northwestern running the table are favorable.

They’ll be favorites against Minnesota, who enters with a 2-5 Big Ten record even after an upset win over Purdue. The season finale is against Illinois at Ryan Field, with the Illini currently sporting a 4-6 record in the third season of the Lovie Smith era.

Finishing strong has been a characteristic of the Wildcats the last two seasons. In 2016 they finished 5-3, including a Pinstripe Bowl win over Pittsburgh. They were even more impressive the next year as they ran off seven-straight wins to finish the regular season then beat Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.

So what caused it in 2018? Fitzgerald didn’t have a specific moment, but rather a consistent attitude that started in early October and continues to this day.

“First of all, the guys stayed the course in our preparation. I thought the staff didn’t flinch and just stuck together,” said Fitzgerald. “We had to identify some new pieces to the puzzle, personnel issues that we had that were unforeseen that you couldn’t prepare for. We obviously would have like to have been more consistent in the stretch than we were, but we weren’t.

“So you just stay the course and I think the whole program did a really good job of that and now we put ourselves in position to have a great finish.”

Like Fitzgerald, sophomore linebacker Blake Gallagher believes it was one moment that triggered a comeback, but rather momentum in practice that turned into production on game day.

“When you start practicing better, guys are just more passionate, guys are getting after it,” said Gallagher. “You notice a trend in practice. I think it was the same thing last year. It’s just the competitive nature, the fire, that everybody’s just out there competing.”

Winning, to be more specific. That’s helping the Wildcats make some history before the regular season even ends.