EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald will soon have plenty of things about the upcoming season on his mind.
Beginning with Saturday’s first day of spring practice, Fitzgerald will start evaluating a trio of quarterbacks who are competing for the starting spot Dan Persa left behind, and that’s just one of the positions the Wildcats need to fill for 2012.
But first, Fitzgerald reflected on a 2011 season that didn’t go as well as he expected.
Northwestern went 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten and lost to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. It was the Wildcats’ fourth consecutive bowl appearance, but also their first losing season since 2006.
“I think last season when you look back -- to get to another bowl game, to keep the consistency going there, we’re proud of that,” Fitzgerald said in his office on a recent afternoon. “We’re proud of the fact we can now say we’ve done some things that have never happened.
“But have we achieved the goals that we put on the board that we discussed as far as being champions? No. You look at ways to get there, and you get back to work.”
Fitzgerald and Northwestern’s players believed they had a legitimate shot at the Big Ten championship in 2011 based on the players they had returning. They had experienced players throughout the field and believed they possessed as much talent in the program as they ever had.
From the start, though, the season never went according to plan. Persa suffered a setback in his return from an Achilles tendon injury when he tore his calf prior to the Wildcats’ 2011 season opener. Fitzgerald still was hopeful Persa could play in the opener, but he ended up sitting the first three games.
“I can say with a clear conscience I anticipated him playing in the opener,” Fitzgerald said. “Now, we got to the point of the week where he wasn’t going to play, but I wasn’t going to let Boston College know that.”
Northwestern survived Boston College with a 24-17 win and trounced Eastern Illinois in Week 2, but it was a bumpy ride the rest of the season.
Army outscored the Wildcats 14-7 in the second half and defeated them 21-14. Northwestern couldn’t hold onto a 28-10 lead against Illinois and lost 38-35. It led Michigan 24-14 before losing 42-24. It was tied with Iowa 17-17 after three quarters and lost 41-31. Penn State outscored the Wildcats 7-0 in the second half to win 34-24.
After a four-game winning streak, which included an upset of Nebraska on the road, the Wildcats finished the year with two more heartbreaking losses. They were within seven points of Michigan State in the fourth quarter and lost 31-17. In the bowl game, they rallied from a 23-point deficit to pull within eight, but then fell 33-22 to Texas A&M.
“There’s no moral victories, but you look at, ‘That’s how close we are and this is what we need to do,’” Fitzgerald said. “Really, we look at it from a coaching standpoint we got to coach our guys better to be more consistent in our execution in-game.
“Are we changing everything exponentially? No, we’re not, but we’re trying to find that one more step to get us to become a championship team. I think we’re one step away. The way you get there is you work at it. You just really do.”
Fitzgerald continually said he wasn’t content on where Northwestern was as a program.
“It feels good to me as the leader of the program to have a senior class walk out of our program as the all-time winning senior class, and for no one who touches our program to be satisfied. To be very thankful for what that group was able to accomplish, but there’s no one here that feels satisfied with where we’re at and what we’ve accomplished. To me, that’s inspiring.”
Fitzgerald didn’t go into detail what the Wildcats had to improve upon, but he believed there would be changes made.
“I think there’s some very specific things that we’re working on and trying to improve on,” he said. “You can always look. Is it personnel? Is it schematic? Under that schematic, is it execution? Obviously, you’re kind of kind of tying all that up and putting a bow on it with teaching. So we look at everything with a very, very critical eye.
“We just didn’t get it done last year collectively as a group. We take that to heart. I don’t look at it like it’s broken. I just look at how close we are. I mean, we’re close.”