Wildcats ready to put on late show

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern's preparations for its first football game of the season have been part high school and part preschool.

First, the preschool part. As they condition their bodies for Saturday's late kickoff at California (9:30 p.m. Central time), Northwestern players have nap time built into their game-week itineraries. Yes, the 'Cat naps are back.

"This nap we're getting in midday helps a lot," senior quarterback Kain Colter said. "I've actually liked it."

Coach Pat Fitzgerald started the mandatory naps last season before a mid-afternoon kickoff against Nebraska, grumbling at the time, "This is what I get paid to do? Great, nap time. Seriously? It's pathetic."

But the naps, which take place in the early to mid afternoon after meetings and a light lifting session, are an important part of getting players' body clocks right for a late kickoff on the West Coast. It sounds funny, but the Big Ten's road struggles against the Pac-12 are no joke. Pac-12 stadiums recently have been graveyards for Big Ten teams, which have dropped 20 of the past 25 true road games against Pac-12 opponents.

Northwestern is one of three Big Ten teams traveling to Pac-12 country this season. In Week 3, Wisconsin visits Arizona State and Ohio State visits Cal. The Wisconsin-Arizona State game also kicks off at 9:30 p.m. Madison time. Badgers coach Gary Andersen is taking his players to the desert two days before the game to help with the adjustment.

After practicing at 4 p.m. during most of preseason camp, Northwestern started practices at 9 p.m. this week. Players weren't required to come to the facility until late morning, and they had most of the afternoon to relax before dinner and pre-practice meetings.

"Some people don't like the midday naps," Colter said. "Maybe they're up watching TV. It's really about just getting off your feet and getting some time away from football. They don't want us to be burned out.

"For me, I'm definitely getting my nap in."

The late practices have a "Friday Night Lights" feel to them, according to wide receiver Rashad Lawrence. Fitzgerald moved game-week workouts to the school's lacrosse/soccer field on campus along Lake Michigan, partly because of the superior lighting there but also to create another adjustment for players.

Wednesday night, a bus scheduled to take players from the football complex to the on-campus field didn't show, sending assistant coaches and support staffers scrambling for their cars. Minutes later, a caravan of cars and trucks carrying players and honking their horns -- "Varsity Blues" style -- streamed into the parking lot.

"It's high school, Hank!" Fitzgerald said to defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.

Linebacker Collin Ellis assured Fitzgerald that he had his teammates wear their helmets in his pickup.

"Who's giving me money for gas?" one player jokingly asked the coaches.

The team's first night practice, on Monday, featured some hiccups, mainly because of the sweltering heat sweeping through the Midwest. Tuesday night's workout was much crisper.

To create a California feel, a speaker next to the field blared the sound of lapping waves (Cal's stadium, for the record, is nowhere near the ocean). The weather cooperated Wednesday night, as Northwestern practiced in Bay Area-like temperatures with fog rolling in off the lake.

"I feel real comfortable," Lawrence said. "I feel like I'm on West Coast time right now. I don’t have a sense of what the time is during the day. I just know my body is ready to go at a certain time. That’s optimal game time for us."

The toughest adjustment for Northwestern players this week might be the easiest for most college students: stay up late. Fitzgerald asked players to stay up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. to prepare for the late kickoff.

Northwestern normally practices in the morning, and players arrive at the complex before 7 a.m. After Tuesday's practice, Lawrence went to bed at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. Normally, he'll be zonked out by 9 p.m.

" To make that switch and force the body to stay up for a little longer so you get a longer night's rest, it's kind of different," he said. "We tried to find ways to stay up later."

Lawrence did so by playing cards with housemates Ibraheim Campbell, Jimmy Hall and Mike Eshun. Colter, who interned at Goldman Sachs this summer, read a book about consulting.

Fitzgerald said the adjustments for players would have been more dramatic if they went straight from morning practices to evening ones. Northwestern also benefits from having no classes until Sept. 24.

"If we were in school, this would be a major problem," Fitzgerald said. "We might have to go out [to California] a day earlier. With us not being in school, it gives us the opportunity to have flexibility in our routine."

Fitzgerald and other Northwestern officials weren't pleased when the Cal kickoff time was announced, noting the late return to campus and the impact on Week 2 prep. It would be worse, Fitzgerald said, if Northwestern practiced on Sunday.

The team will conduct an injury check as soon as it returns early Sunday. Players then will be excused the rest of the day. Coaches will work until 3 p.m.

"I'm excited for the night game, I’m excited that it's a late game," Colter said. "The only thing I'm not looking forward to is the flight back, but hopefully we'll get a little bit of sleep."

And a win.