For Northwestern, Ohio State brings big opportunity

For Northwestern, Ohio State brings big opportunity

September 30, 2013, 8:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber


It's a word Pat Fitzgerald used an awful lot during Monday's press conference. The Northwestern coach was using it in typical coach-speak fashion, using it to illustrate that his team needs to execute and go out there and win and all those usual football comments.

But perhaps there was a hint of the other meaning of the word for the Wildcats this weekend.

With the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes coming to Evanston for a nationally telecast Saturday-night showdown between a pair of teams ranked in the top 20, the opportunity for Northwestern to climb into college football's stratosphere is the one that is the most intriguing. A win over the Buckeyes, and the Wildcats go from plucky upstart to the team with the inside track to compete for and win a Big Ten title.

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It's the next big step for Northwestern as a program, and the opportunity to take it comes Saturday.

"Our goals aren't to be cute, our goals aren't to win a couple games. Our goals are to be champions. And we've got a couple of steps in that direction over my time over my time, and that's what we're working to build," Fitzgerald said Monday. "We'll continue to take those necessary steps."

But, as that No. 4 in front of their name might indicate, the Buckeyes won't be easy to take down, even for a team as talented as Northwestern. Ohio State is in its second season under head coach Urban Meyer, and it's yet to lose with him on the sideline. The Buckeyes, being a perennial Big Ten and national powerhouse, have won 28 of the last 29 games vs. Northwestern.

So when asked if a game with Ohio State is a good "measuring stick," Fitzgerald eventually acknowledged just how big this game is.

"I think every Big Ten game is a measuring stick, I really do," he said. "I think each game is kind of a one-game season. When you play a team that's ranked in the top 5, who's playing as well as they are, it's an incredibly difficult challenge for us. But, as always, we focus on us, we focus on what we have to do, we focus on the way that we can play. And if we do that, we'll be prepared for the opportunity. And then we've got to go make it happen and make the plays that winners make in the 60 minutes that we get the opportunity to play. I'm not minimizing it, and I'm not trying to say this isn't a big game. Every Big Ten game's a big game, so hopefully we'll prepare the right way."

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Northwestern knows what challenges they face. Fitzgerald correctly pointed out that no one has been able to stop Ohio State's big-play offense, which has scored an average of 48.2 points per game in its first five games. But he also has faith in his own team, one that's performed well enough to go 4-0 and rank at No. 16 in the AP top 25.

"I think there's a talent gap between anybody in the top 5 and everybody else. Not just us, I think everybody," he said. "But I think we're pretty darn talented, too. Beauty's in the eye of the beholder, and I think our guys are incredibly talented. That's why we brought them here. I think they're the full package. I think they're the real deal. And I think we're doing everything we possibly can to coach them up and make them better."

"Execute" and "opportunity." Those were the words of the day for Fitzgerald on Monday. In a few days, his team will have the opportunity to win one of its biggest games in recent memory, perhaps the biggest in his eight-year tenure as Wildcats coach. Now it's up to Northwestern to execute.