Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern have sights set on first Big Ten title since 2000

A key question Fitzgerald will have to answer before NU opens its season Aug. 31 at Stanford is who’ll replace Clayton Thorson as the starting quarterback.

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Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald responds to a question during the Big Ten Conference NCAA college football media days Friday, July 19, 2019, in Chicago.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald responds to a question during the Big Ten Conference NCAA college football media days Friday, July 19, 2019, in Chicago.

AP Photos/Charles Rex Arbogast

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald knows what it’s like for his players to be in this position.

The expectations. The anticipation. The opportunity in front of them.

Fitzgerald was on his way to winning back-to-back Big Ten defensive player of the year awards (1995-96) with the Wildcats the last time they successfully defended the conference title.

NU will head into this season as the reigning Big Ten West champions. The wisdom Fitzgerald passes down to the Wildcats, who have their sights set on defending the division crown, is not to get caught up with past success.

‘‘The rearview mirror is small and the windshield is big for a reason,’’ Fitzgerald said during Big Ten media days Friday at the Hilton Chicago. ‘‘If you get caught looking back as you’re moving forward, you’re going to be on a collision course with failure.’’

NU has even loftier goals this season. Senior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano said the Wildcats aren’t satisfied with winning the West. They want to build off the experience of reaching their first Big Ten championship game and win their first conference title since 2000.

But NU knows it can’t afford to have the lackadaisical start this season it has the last few seasons. The Wildcats have road matchups against Stanford, Wisconsin and Nebraska in three of their first five games.

‘‘We’ve got to start faster; we know that,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘Up until the last couple of years, we’ve been a really good team early in the season. Then I got my rear end ripped by everybody that covered us: ‘Well, what happens in October?’ Now it’s: ‘What’s going on in September?’ We’ve just got to become more consistent, and that starts and ends with me.’’

NU adjusted its offseason workout schedule to address its slow starts. Senior offensive lineman Jared Thomas said the Wildcats have started their conditioning on Mondays instead of Tuesdays to make sure the players stay focused.

‘‘That does two things: One, it shows which guys are making poor decisions on the weekends because you’re hurting on Monday; and two, you prepare a little differently,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘At the end of the day, it falls on the leadership, making sure we’re upholding the standards of the team and making sure guys aren’t failing and being lackadaisical with their preparation.’’

Fitzgerald said better defensive play also should help the team get off to a better start.

‘‘I really like the group we’ve got coming back,’’ Fitzgerald said about his defense. ‘‘Our early struggles last year as a team, a lot of it was because of our defense. We gave up too many explosive plays. We had opportunities to get off the field and didn’t do that. And I think as that kind of meshed together, then you started to see our defense make some plays and shorten the field for our offense.’’

A key question Fitzgerald will have to answer before NU opens its season Aug. 31 at Stanford is who’ll replace quarterback Clayton Thorson, a four-year starter who was selected by the Eagles in the fifth round in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws under pressure during the first half of the Holiday Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah, Monday, Dec. 31, 2018, in San Diego.

Fitzgerald said Thorson, NU’s winningest quarterback in our program history, was underappreciated.

AP Photos/Denis Poroy

Fitzgerald said it wouldn’t be fair to compare the next starter to Thorson. All he’s looking for is a quarterback who can help everybody on the team believe the Wildcats are going to win.

The hype surrounding the potential of Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson makes for an interesting competition at the position. He’s the second five-star recruit to join NU in the Fitzgerald era.

Fitzgerald said he has been impressed by Johnson so far but reminded everyone he is still a work in progress.

‘‘I think Hunter is like a lot of young players in any program,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘He’s learning the offense, growing and developing relationships with his teammates and gaining the trust and confidence of those teammates. It’s the same thing every player goes through. . . . He’s just working through that process.’’

Fitzgerald said he wants to give every quarterback on the roster a chance to compete for the starting job.

‘‘Whoever the quarterback is, we’ll make sure to protect him and go from there,’’ Thomas said.

After the Wildcats won their third consecutive bowl game by defeating Utah in the Holiday Bowl, Fitzgerald said: “I’m not going anywhere. This is home forever.’’

The players appreciate Fitzgerald’s dedication to a program he helped build as a student-athlete.

‘‘It’s very meaningful for us in the sense that he’s done what I’ve done before,’’ Gaziano said. ‘‘He’s been a student-athlete at Northwestern. To have him as a leader — he’s very passionate and energetic about the game — it helps us to bring our ‘A’ game every day and know we can’t take strides back.’’

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