Offseason competition paid off for Northwestern

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The most important game Northwestern played took place months before the 2008 season opener against Syracuse.

In an effort to give his players greater ownership, Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald restructured the offseason program, putting a competitive element into every team activity. Whether it was winter conditioning, spring practice, community service projects or academics, Northwestern players competed in the "Wildcat Games."

The roster divided into 10 mini teams -- each with a captain, each with a mixture of offense and defense and older and younger players -- and racked up points from the end of the 2007 season to the start of fall camp.

"It made it so there was less of a gap between older and younger or between classes or position groups," said senior defensive end Kevin Mims, whose "NU Elite" team finished third in the competition. "We talked as a leadership council at the beginning of the year and said there's a lot of division within this team. Say there's a young wide receiver, I almost never talked to him because he's in a different class than me, a different position group and a different side of the ball.

"So we tried to get groups of guys together that wouldn't usually get to know each other. Getting to know your teammates really helps when it comes down to crunch time."

Northwestern performed in crunch time this fall, going 5-1 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Despite having only one All-Big Ten performer (defensive end Corey Wootton) and losing key players to injuries, the Wildcats' newfound unity helped them win three of their final four games to finish 9-3.

Fitzgerald could tell the team's attitude was in the right place when it came time to present the reward for winning the "Wildcat Games." The winning team would be excused from the conditioning test on the first day of camp.

Wide receiver Eric Peterman, who captained the "Victorious Secret" team to victory, discussed the situation with his squad.

"I said, 'Look, we've put all this work into it. If you feel good and you feel like you can run the conditioning test, why don't we go ahead and do it?'" Peterman said. "It will make a step not only for our individual team but a step for this program in the right direction that we're going to go this extra mile. Even when we don't have to do certain activities, we're going to go the extra mile and do it."

Quarterback C.J. Bacher's team, which finished second, also had the option of skipping the conditioning test.

"They still wanted to run it," Fitzgerald said. "We had a hungry team and we needed to keep that hunger mentality."

Fitzgerald will continue the "Wildcat Games" program this offseason and underscored the importance of getting young players involved in competition, both during the season and in the offseason.

"That will be huge in keeping this momentum going," he said. "In 1995 and 1996, we had a lot of older guys playing and when we matriculated out of the program we didn't quite have the amount of young guys with the experience. There were also a lot of distractions off the field back then whereas now we have a lot of consistency and a clear vision in our program."