Northwestern eager to change national narrative this season

Why are the Wildcats so consistently underrated? Coach Pat Fitzgerald has several theories.

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Coach Pat Fitzgerald has several theories on why the Wildcats are often overlooked by college football pundits.

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Northwestern is determined to change the national narrative about its program this season.

How will the Wildcats do that?

‘‘We worry about what we can control, and we’ll just keep winning,’’ coach Pat Fitzgerald said Wednesday at the Walter Athletics Center in Evanston.

Even after NU won the Big Ten West last season, ESPN’s football power index has the Wildcats favored to win only four of their 12 games this season.

Why is NU so consistently underrated? Fitzgerald has several theories.

The Wildcats have struggled against lesser opponents early in their last few seasons. Since 2016, they have lost to Illinois State, Western Michigan and Akron and to Duke twice. But they have a combined 36-17 record the last four seasons, the third-best in the Big Ten West during that span.

‘‘Those who don’t cover us weekly or monthly or cover the Big Ten, they kind of define our team based on a handful of games, and they’re all losses,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘I told the team, ‘If you guys want to change that narrative, you have to go out and earn it.’ ’’

NU also hasn’t had a high-scoring offense that runs up the score on opponents. In the last two seasons, the Wildcats are a combined 9-2 in games decided by eight points or fewer.

‘‘That may play into why, maybe, we don’t get a lot of national recognition from a respect standpoint,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘I didn’t know the goal was to win by 80 points. I thought it was to win by one.’’

Most of the players don’t mind being underdogs. In fact, some prefer it.

‘‘Everyone is counting us out, and I like it,’’ linebacker Paddy Fisher said. ‘‘I’m big on laying low. When the time comes we’re exalted, and we show what we’ve been doing in the dark has come to light.’’

‘‘We’re embracing it, knowing we have a target on our backs this year,’’ receiver Riley Lees said. ‘‘If we have that mentality, it’ll help us go into games like, ‘We’re the team that everyone in the West wants to beat.’ And I think that’ll help us attack and do what we have to do to win.’’

Repeating as Big Ten West champions won’t be easy. Six of NU’s first seven opponents are projected to be Top 25 teams this season.

‘‘We haven’t gotten the starts we wanted over the last few seasons,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We’re not going to overanalyze it, other than the fact that we have to prepare better and we have to play better.

‘‘You want to earn [respect] by playing the best teams you possibly can. The way the season sets up for us in the first couple of weeks, it’s going to be a daunting challenge. But it’s going to be an absolutely phenomenal opportunity.’’

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