CHICAGO – Ten wins is nice, but in a 10-3 season most coaches will tell you that they’ll fret all offseason more about the three losses than they will smile about the 10 wins.
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is no different. Those three losses to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee were all different in many ways, but there was one common thread that ran through all three games, which were lost by 38, 30 and 39 points.
The opponent was simply stronger up front. And that was a problem.
“We got pushed around in those losses, no doubt about it,” Fitzgerald said during Big Ten Media Days Monday in Chicago. “We knew that was something we had to change. We thought the same thing two years ago when we came off a five-win season and really played poorly up front.
“You watch film and as a coach, you’re nuts, right? You look at our footwork, our hand placement, our eyes, you go through all that stuff to the Nth degree, right? More times than not we felt like we were in the right place fundamentally, but we weren’t strong enough. You want to win that little battle of six inches with the other guy. You want to move him six inches this way, six inches that way, to create vertical and horizontal seams. Every game at every level is won that way. And we just weren’t where we needed to be.”
So what this offseason has brought is a complete change in philosophy as to how the Wildcats prepared their players for the season ahead. And so far, at least in the weight room, it shows. NU players have set more than 400 personal bests over the summer. Bigger and stronger hopes to equate to better – especially in the big games against the big boys – once the fall rolls around.
“We conditioned our big guys differently. Instead of running them more, we lifted them more,” Fitzgerald said. “We did more metabolics in our conditioning. We’ve spent more time in the weight room, and we’ve seen the results of it already. As I look to 2016, this may be the strongest football team that we’ve had. … And then we need to go out and execute on the field.”
It’s also helped that the Wildcats have been more successful in recruiting linemen the past few years. There’s more depth now, and more guys who are game-ready. When you want to play physical football, you’ve got to be able to keep linemen fresh and that means rotating several players. The young guys are able to step up.
“This group of freshman, they come in stronger than our juniors were last year at the same time. We’re always going to be a developmental program, but that’s certainly been a point of emphasis (lately in our recruiting). We’ve got to get better in these areas coming in, so when we develop them, we’re further along. It allows to play more guys too, and that’s really important along the line of scrimmage.
“There are freshmen coming in and benching 225 at least 12, 15 times and they’ve only been here five weeks. That’s not us; they came to us bigger and stronger. But it certainly gives us more to work with, that’s for sure. I told our coaches to be prepared to play a lot of young guys, because they are good and they are ready.”
Everyone at every position is benefitting from the summer workouts. Even linebacker Nate Hall.
“Nate’s a great looking young man, but he went from getting 225 pinned against his chest to doing 15 now this summer,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s gone from being able to wear a schmedium T-shirt to actually looking like a Big Ten linebacker. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. A year ago, being thrust into that position, it was a big realization for him that he wasn’t physically ready to be a day-in, rep-in, rep-out Big Ten linebacker and he’s done something about it.”
In a Big Ten West that has the potential to be wide open, Northwestern certainly has the players to compete, especially if they are better along the line of scrimmage. Last year was nice, but Fitzgerald wants more.
And that’s the way it should be.
“Ten wins is a special year no matter where you’re at, Northwestern or Alabama,” he said. “To get to the 11 and get to 12 and get to the Big Ten Championship Game and to get in the playoff, you’re in pretty rare air there and it’s a high standard and the way you need to play to win those games.
“For us to take the next step, we’ve got to do a better job collectively as a program to win those types of games. We’ve got to improve our strength up front to take the next steps to where we want to go to put ourselves into position to compete to be in Indianapolis and to be in that type of conversation.”
The Wildcats are on their way, one bench press at a time.