Age generation: Paterno, Fitz meet again
There's the game face, the crew cut and the respect for those who've been coaching long before his short career began.
Like Joe Paterno.
"Coach Paterno is college football," Fitzgerald said as his Wildcats got ready to meet the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions and their legendary coach here Saturday.
"I don't want to speak for other coaches but for me he's a role model and someone who we aspire to be," Fitzgerald added. "Obviously you hope to have a few victories, I don't know if anyone we'll ever get to where he is, and it's because of his consistency, his approach to coaching the game."
Fitzgerald's first experience coaching in a Big Ten game came against Paterno and the Nittany Lions in the 2006 season, a 33-7 Nittany Lions victory at State College. Fitzgerald, then just 31, had been a coach only for a few months following the death of Randy Walker.
Eleven years earlier, the Nittany Lions - and Paterno - really got an eyeful of Fitzgerald. He was wearing a dark No. 51 Northwestern jersey and seemed to be in on every tackle as the Wildcats beat Penn State in Evanston on their way to the Rose Bowl.
"We had Keith Jackson to do that game, it's probably one I'll never forget. I think as a defense we were on the field for 48 minutes that game, at least that's what it felt like. We found a way to get the win," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald was born in 1974 - eight years after Paterno had become head coach of the Nittany Lions.
"We had our troubles with Northwestern out there when Fitzgerald was there," Paterno said, noting that his linebackers coach, Ron Vanderlinden, was the defensive coordinator at Northwestern when Fitzgerald was a star player.
"Fitzgerald, he's a great guy for college football," Paterno said. "But he was a heck of a football player ... smart, tough, the whole business. You knew when he decided to coach, he'd be a heck of a coach."
As usual, Paterno has a couple of good linebackers of his own this season in Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman. Bowman had a stellar game against Michigan last week with 11 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception that helped the Nittany Lions to a 35-10 win.
Penn State (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) has the nation's toughest defense to score on (just 8.9 points a game) and is especially difficult to run against.
Northwestern's running attack has struggled most of the season. Scott Concannon, who a short time ago was the fourth-string tailback, has now won the starting job after gaining 73 yards against Indiana last week when Northwestern stormed back from a 28-3 deficit for a 29-28 win - the biggest comeback in school history.
If the running game can't get going, that will likely mean the Wildcats (5-3, 2-2) will turn loose their passing game behind quarterback Mike Kafka.
Kafka, who leads Big Ten quarterbacks in passing yards (258.4) and total offense (284.1), could be throwing nearly every down and will looking for former walk-on Zeke Markshausen or former quarterback Andrew Brewer as his top receivers.
If Northwestern has any chance Saturday, the Wildcats will have to find a way to control Nittany Lions quarterback Daryll Clark, who riddled Michigan for four TD passes last week.
Northwestern's pass rush has been erratic and the Wildcats' secondary is banged up with defensive backs Sherrick McManis, Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith all nursing injuries.
The Northwestern game falls between Michigan and Ohio State on the Nittany Lions' schedule. They know they can't afford a letdown to have any chance of overtaking Iowa and winning another Big Ten title.
"You can't even let that creep into your mind," Clark said. "Halloween, going to be at their place, it's definitely going to be a tough game."