EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald never lost confidence in his Northwestern Wildcats, even when they appeared to lose confidence in themselves during a roller coaster season over the past few months. When his offense played well, his defense would fold. When the defense put together a few stops, the offense would sputter.
But in the past few weeks, the Wildcats' world has stopped spinning. They're finally playing the type of consistent football that Fitzgerald has been preaching and with their third straight win, 28-6 over the Rice Owls on Saturday afternoon, they're suddenly just one short of one most magical numbers in all of college football: 6. That’s the number it takes to become bowl eligible.
"I think the number one thing our young men have done is they've stayed the course," Fitzgerald said. "We were close in a lot of those games, and nobody likes to be close. You can go one of two ways when that happens. You can start pointing fingers and blaming people or you can look inward, look yourself in the mirror. I've got a poem that I love, ‘The Man in the Glass.’ You can look at the man in the glass and say, ‘What am I going to do about it?’ And I think the young men have taken that attitude. They've put a chip on their shoulder and they've been focused on preparation."
Two of the players who answered the young coach's challenge in a big way on Saturday were seniors Dan Persa and Jeremy Ebert. Persa threw for a career high 372 yards and four touchdowns, while Ebert pulled down 208 receiving yards and two scores.
"I think it's what we expected all along," Persa said of the team's recent performance. "We had a rough stretch there where we thought we could have won pretty much all those games and then we took it away from ourselves. We knew we could play well, it was just [a matter of] putting the product on the field."
What has to make Fitzgerald happiest is that his team put away a team that wasn't very good. It's an issue the Wildcats haven't struggled with all year. They stepped on Rice early and the defense shut things down. As much as Persa wanted to say that nothing has changed within his team, the single biggest reason they've turned things around is that the defense has found its groove.
"I think obviously the difference in our team is the defense, hands down," he said. "They've really stepped it up the past couple weeks and they're the reason why we're winning now, not the offense."
"I thought our defense is really starting to come into their own," he said. "Starting to gain confidence. Playing much better. [The defense] is having 11 heartbeats play as one."
Those heartbeats have helped turned Northwestern's season around. With a renewed sense of pride and focus on the defensive end, Fitzgerald knows he can get his team back into yet another bowl game with a win against the Minnesota Golden Gophers next Saturday.
"There's a lot of ways to motivate your guys," he said. "Yeah, you better believe [the six-win plateau talk] is out there. And I want them to [think about] that. I was here back in the day when we didn't do that. We stunk. We have an expectation here with the way that we should play. We have an expectation with the way we should prepare. And we have an expectation that we should play in the postseason. We didn't get it done in the month of October, but we're fighting and scratching and clawing to make this a November to remember."
If the Wildcats can find a way to win one of their last two games and get back into a bowl game for the fourth year in a row, that's exactly what they will have accomplished.