Northwestern has spent much of its program history seeking an identity outside futility. The joke remains college football history begins in 1995 because Northwestern’s history is largely and completely forgettable before that breakthrough Rose Bowl season.
That team was built on its defense.
A junior linebacker took the lead as the program transformed itself that year and made a surprising run to the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Pat Fitzgerald made his name as the tough-nosed, hardworking, under-recruited linebacker racking up awards and turning in the best season Northwestern had seen in several decades.
He backed that up. Winning the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards for a second straight year and delivering to Northwestern a second straight Big Ten title.
The Wildcats’ greatest teams were built through Fitzgerald and that defense’s sheer force of will.
As quickly as Northwestern rose with Fitzgerald as the anchor of that defense, it disappeared just as quickly when he graduated.
The Wildcats’ defense never hit those marks again. When Northwestern won the Big Ten in 2000 with Randy Walker in charge, it was because of a dynamic spread offense, new to the Big Ten. As the Wildcats began making an unprecedented run of bowl games, it was always on the offense putting up video game numbers.
That was the legacy Pat Fitzgerald took over when he suddenly became head coach in 2006. This was a program that made up for its talent disadvantage with a smart offensive gameplan. It used schematics to make up for its lack of athleticism and sometimes talent.
This was never who Pat Fitzgerald was though. He was running a spread offense (and still does), but he wanted a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. Even without a strong running back, he sought balance between run and the pass.
His team’s defense was never consistent. What he made his name as a player was not the team he had to coach. And the team’s inconsistency was apparent.
Fitzgerald became head coach before he was ready to do so. It took him some time to find his footing. Slowly though he built up the recruiting base. Bowl games became an expectation not a wish. Fitzgerald became Northwestern’s all-time winningest coach.
After 10 years as the team’s head coach, he has reached not only a comfort zone as the coach, but has established a stronger recruiting base than Northwestern has experienced before.
The program has truly begun to fit his vision.
It reached perhaps its zenith in the surprise 2015 season. Northwestern was no longer a team with a passive read and react defense. Mike Hankwitz’s defense had grown into the team’s strength. The talent had grown.
Northwestern does not outscore opponents anymore. The team holds teams to a number its offense has to reach.
Last year, the Wildcats had the fifth best defense in the country according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+. It was the culmination of a trend upward for Northwestern the last several years — even through two difficult years just outside the bowl picture.
The Wildcats hit their first peak in 2008 when they were 36th in S&P+. That unit helped NU to Fitzgerald’s first Top-25 ranking and the Alamo Bowl. But it quickly dissipated — No. 51 in 2009, No. 95 in 2010, No. 100 in 2011 and even No. 50 in that breakthrough 2012 Gator Bowl championship season.
Northwestern as a program has never been anything to write home about defensively. The program’s successful teams have always had strong offenses with a defense just good enough for them to survive.
As the team struggled to gain consistency, its defense continued to be a big source for that inconsistency. Slowly they began rebuilding the defense. The turn began even as they won five games. The defense was able to carry more weight.
And then last year’s breakthrough. The defense was the team. It carried the whole group on its back as the offense adjusted to a freshman at quarterback.
With Anthony Walker, a player some have projected as a first round pick in the NFL Draft as a junior, the Wildcats seem locked to do it again on the defensive end. With seven of the top 11 recruits according to 247Sports Composite Rankings in Northwestern’s 2017 class coming on the defensive side, the Wildcats are attracting defensive players and making this their new identity.
And with Justin Jackson as the “bell cow” back, Fitzgerald finally has the running balance. And possibly some talent behind him. Northwestern can achieve that balance they have sought throughout Fitzgerald’s tenure.
It took a decade for Pat Fitzgerald, but he has created the team he always envisioned. It is one that can be successful as he continues to build the recruiting base and the program’s identity.
This is the team Fitzgerald has always wanted. This is the team Northwestern had to become to reach consistency.
The Wildcats are not there yet. Everything is precarious with Northwestern and the limitations and history involved with the program. The team does not have to win 10 games again. It cannot return to just outside a bowl game or barely in either.
Northwestern should not with the culture and the talent it has established on the defensive end.
Fitzgerald has his team. Northwestern is ready to make its next step.