Pat Fitzgerald has taken Northwestern to a school-record three consecutive bowl games. But he's still looking for that elusive bowl victory after overtime losses in the 2008 Alamo Bowl and 2010 Outback Bowl. Northwestern's drought in bowl wins -- stretching back to the 1949 Rose Bowl -- remains one of few links to the program's dark days.
Most project Northwestern's postseason woes to continue Saturday in the TicketCity Bowl against Texas Tech. The Wildcats looked lost without star quarterback Dan Persa in their final two regular-season games, and Persa remains out following Achilles' surgery.
I caught up with Fitzgerald earlier this week to discuss the bowl game.
What part of the team has improved the most between the end of the regular season and now?
Pat Fitzgerald: We re-established our chemistry. About a month and a half ago, we were ranked in the Top 25 and feeling really good about ourselves. Obviously, we lost a little bit of that mojo, a little bit of that magic, with the way we performed. We really wanted to re-establish that chemistry, and we've improved that over the last month.
How have you done that?
PF: We talked about it at length as a leadership council going into bowl season. The guys have done a lot together being out of school. With us being in Chicago, we were able to have a lot of fun together, going to a Blackhawks game, going to a Bulls game, just spending time and having camaraderie. We do some things at practice that are fun. Just tried to build that chemistry, and hopefully we'll show that on Saturday.
Dan was such a huge leader for you guys. How much does it have to be on the other guys to step up and share the leadership?
PF: I think that just happens naturally. Unfortunately, when one guy gets hurt and that next man's opportunity presents itself, new leaders are going to evolve, new guys are going to step up. We talked about it with the captains and the leadership council. Everybody just needs to do their job to the best of their ability and be who they are. Let's not have somebody go out and try to be Dan Persa. That's not going to work. For the most part, we've accomplished that.
What have you seen out of [quarterback] Evan Watkins heading into the game?
PF: Obviously, he had more time to prepare. Feels much more comfortable, him and Kain [Colter], in their roles, grasping the system from the standpoint of what we're asking him to do. I've been pleased with his development. I just want him to go trust himself and have some fun on Saturday.
Is Kain a bigger part of the play now?
PF: We're going to get all of our playmakers involved, so we think he's one of those guys that's pretty dynamic. We'll see on Saturday.
What's Mike Trumpy's status heading into the game?
PF: He'll be a game-time decision.
What concerns you most looking at Texas Tech?
PF: They can run, they're very well coached, [Tommy Tuberville] and his staff have done a great job here this first year offensively. They're up-tempo, we've got to be able to match that. The good news is we're more similar than different in that aspect. Defensively, they've got an advantage, their coordinator is no longer going to be calling the plays. We're going to have to adjust to that early and figure out how they're going to defend us. And they've got great weapons in the kicking game. So it's going to be a challenge, there's no question about that. You couple that with a lot of graduates they have here in the [Dallas-Fort Worth] metroplex, it's going to be like a road game for us.
You mention the defensive coordinator leaving as an advantage for Texas Tech. Can you really make many changes when you've done it one way the whole year?
PF: I don't know if you're going to change, but the situations of the game -- third down, red zone, tight zone, goal line -- could you change a little bit? Yeah. Absolutely. Maybe a little bit different personality, maybe a little more or a little less aggressive. We don't know. We're going to find out on game day. It's a little bit of that unknown that makes you paranoid as a coach.
Defensively, your guys talked about getting back to the basics. How important was that and how has that developed this month?
PF: Number one, we needed to get healthy. We were pretty beat up on defense at the end of the year, and it showed. Our inability to fit the right way, our inability to be physical at the point of attack and come downhill really hurt us. We're going to have to hope to continue to stay healthy through the game. And then the fundamental time we were able to spend and get back to almost a camp mode was what's important. Now we need to go use that, the way we've prepared and go play with it.
The Big Ten is off to a good start in the bowl season. How important is it for you to contribute to that?
PF: You know me, I'm a Big Ten man. I was so fired up for the Hawkeyes and for the Illini. I sent coach [Ron] Zook a text [Wednesday] night, congratulating him and his staff and his family and his players. Hopefully, we can continue this going. You talk to every coach in our league, we root for our brothers and obviously, it's our turn coming up. I wish the challenge was going to be less. It's going to be a big one for us, but we're excited to represent our conference.
I know the bowl losing streak has been brought up a lot, but how important is it for this program to take that step?
PF: I could stop answering the question [laughs], but it also builds momentum for the offseason. You get a chance to get the first win of 2011, get things rolling the right way. You see all the guys we've got coming back next year. We have a chance to have a really special team. For our 13 seniors, this is their last go-round and a chance for them to leave a legacy of success in the bowl season. It's a real special opportunity for us.
Can the bowl be even more of a springboard with what you have coming back?
PF: It really could be. But just because you win doesn't guarantee you anything. Look at what happened unfortunately to a couple teams this year, not only in our league but across the country, they had big bowl wins. Injuries and off-the-field things happen. For us, it'll make everybody feel a lot better about New Year's Day than the alternative.