Rolling Wildcats look to keep surging as season winds down
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Everything seems to be falling into place for No. 23 Northwestern.
The Wildcats come into Saturday's game at Illinois on their longest win streak in more than two decades.
They're closing in on double-digit victories for the second time in three years, a possibility that seemed as long as a desperation heave five games into the season. They'll get there if they beat struggling Illinois as expected and win their bowl game.
''It would mean a lot to our seniors,'' said linebacker Nate Hall, a junior. ''To be one of the only teams to do that is a special thing, just to look back on your football career and your time here at Northwestern and to be able to say you were one of the teams to do something that's never been done here.''
It's not just that Northwestern (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) has a chance to finish with 10 wins. How the Wildcats got to this point and everything else that's going on around the athletic department stand out.
The `Cats are cool these days, with new facilities being built and others expanded. That state-of-the-art makeover comes as the men's basketball team made its first NCAA Tournament and was ranked in the Top 25 as this season got rolling. The football team continues to succeed under Fitzgerald, by far the program's winningest coach.
His 85-65 record over 12 years includes seven bowl appearances and two of the program's three victories. Two of Northwestern's four 10-win seasons have also come under Fitzgerald. But one thing is missing since he took over in 2006: First-place finishes.
The Wildcats have not placed higher than second in Big Ten play under him, be it prior to or since the division split. They're locked into the runner-up spot in the West, with Wisconsin winning it for the third time in four years.
''I think we're really close,'' Fitzgerald said. ''We don't hide away from what our goals are, and that's to win the Big Ten West and win the Big Ten. ... I think we're in the conversation, we've got to knock the door down. We obviously didn't do that to start the year.''
After dropping three of their first four games in 2016 on the way to a seven-win season and Pinstripe Bowl victory, Northwestern again started slow.
The Wildcats were staring at a 2-3 record after five games. They lost a halftime lead in a loss at Wisconsin to open Big Ten play and gotten blown out by Penn State. But just when it looked like they were going nowhere, they set themselves on a winning course.
Along the way, they did something no other major program had done.
They became the first FBS team to play three straight overtime games and win them all during this streak. But after beating Purdue by 10 in regulation, they pounded Minnesota 39-0 for Northwestern's most lopsided victory since a 48-0 dismantling of Illinois in 1970. Justin Jackson joined Wisconsin great Ron Dayne as the only Big Ten players with four straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons in that game.
''What I see is just energy level and people are having a lot of fun now,'' linebacker Brett Walsh said. ''It seems like everybody's playing together. I don't see anybody pointing fingers or anything like that. We're out there having a good time and just playing football. We're doing that, it seems like we're doing pretty well. That's where I see the biggest shift, and definitely the energy level too - all the time in practice, meetings, and obviously during the game.''
Fitzgerald notices it, too.
He sees players who refused to sulk when the team struggled in the early going. He sees a roster built to withstand injuries. More than anything, he sees a program in a good spot.
''I'm going to assume every team in our league is going to do everything they can to win a championship,'' Fitzgerald said. ''I assume that we're going to play everybody and we're going to get their A-game. I assume we're going to play in a hostile environment everywhere we play. You take those assumptions and you put them over there and you focus on yourself, and what we can control. We've got a lot of excitement going on right now. We're recruiting great. We've got the No. 1 graduation rate in the country. Our guys are killing it academically and I'm very proud of them for that.''
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