Big Game Hunting: Will Northwestern give Nebraska Fitz, pull off early upset in Dublin?

Also, Illinois opens against Wyoming in Champaign. Get your game picks right here.

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Big Ten Championship - Northwestern v Ohio State

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald will try to pull his team off the mat in 2022 — just like he did in 2020.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

All Pat Fitzgerald has ever really needed is a wheel in his hand and four on the road. Given that, he has a better shot than most to get somewhere worth going.

Like he did as a lightly recruited high school linebacker who went to Northwestern — the only Big Ten school that would have him — and put the pedal to the metal until he was a two-time national defensive player of the year.

Like he did in helping to drive a transformation at the school from two decades of numbing failure to a Rose Bowl breakthrough in 1995 and a conference co-championship in 1996.

And like he has — more often than not — as Wildcats coach, setting a standard with five straight bowl seasons from 2008 to 2012, accelerating to 10 wins in 2015 and again in 2017, and leaving a 3-9 lemon in 2019 in a ditch by responding with a Big Ten West title in 2020.

No matter what you think of Fitzgerald — not to mention tortured automotive metaphors — we can’t dismiss his chances of steering the Wildcats from last season’s 3-9 hell ride onto a far more pleasant path. Heading into the Northwestern (+12½) vs. Nebraska (11:30 a.m., Fox-32) “Week 0” opener in Dublin on Saturday, Fitzgerald had some oomph back in his giddy-up.

“The way we went through summer workouts,” he said, “I felt like we had our squad back, if that makes sense. … I feel like we’ve got our edge back, kind of who we are, our identity back.”

If that’s another way of saying the Wildcats will rediscover the joys of stopping the run — or at least not be terrible at it as they were in 2021 — then, hey, wonderful. If they do that, and if Ryan Hilinski or Brendan Sullivan provides even just a steady hand at quarterback, “Big Game Hunting” soon will be back in the picking-the-’Cats business.

But what about this first game against the Huskers, who also were 3-9 last season and — same as Northwestern — lost their last six? Why are the Huskers such heavy favorites? Is it because they lost a bunch of close games? Is it because they crushed the ’Cats 56-7 last October in Lincoln? Is it because they’ve added key transfers on offense, including QB Casey Thompson from Texas and wideout Trey Palmer from LSU? 

It can’t be because of embattled coach Scott Frost, under whom the Huskers are a pathetic 10-25 in the Big Ten. How much heat is on Frost? Put it this way: An email came in this week from a sports book offering odds on the first coach fired from each conference, and a winning bet on Frost — the last QB to lead Nebraska to a national championship — wouldn’t even return even money.

Expect a close, low-scoring game. Expect the dudes in purple to run the ball pretty well with Evan Hull, Cam Porter and Andrew Clair. Expect Fitzgerald’s defense to give up some long drives but, overall, be more competitive. An upset already? Sorry, not quite — Huskers, 24-20.

That brings us to Wyoming (+13) at Illinois (3 p.m., BTN), the only other game worth talking about until Week 1. Don’t forget, the Illini also played in Week 0 last year and — in Bret Bielema’s debut — upset Nebraska 30-22 in Champaign. So this isn’t their first extra-early rodeo, though it is the first Wyoming-Illinois meeting ever.

Unlike Illinois, which ended 5-7, the Cowboys were a bowl team in 2021 and finished 7-6 after beating Kent State in the Idaho Potato Bowl. That and a sack of potatoes will get the Cowboys pretty much nowhere on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Bielema sounded an alarm this week when he claimed Wyoming likely is better than the UTSA team the Illini lost to seven days after beating Nebraska. Is it true? The answer is it doesn’t matter, because this game is all about the Illini themselves. Are they moving forward under a coach once widely thought of as being capable of building a monster?

“There’s definitely just been a consistent evolution to get to where we are right now,” Bielema said. “This group of guys is very special, and I think it’s going to be one of those types of years.”

Rutgers v Syracuse

Tommy DeVito at Syracuse in 2021.

Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

At Illinois, where the last winning record was in 2011? We’ll have to see it to believe it. Just like we’ll have to see Tommy DeVito, a transfer from Syracuse, look like anything different and better than so many forgettable Illini QBs before him. Will new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. — whom Bielema stole from UTSA — make much of a dent?

Food for thought: Despite Bielema’s overall failure at Arkansas, he bumped up from 3-9 to 7-6 in Year 2 and beat ranked LSU, beat top-10 Mississippi and lost 14-13 to mighty Alabama along the way. As that season unfolded, Bielema sold the college football world on a Razorbacks ascension. OK, so it didn’t work out in the end.

Ascension? This is just a game against little ol’ Wyoming. Still, the Illini could use a good day that breathes some life into a fan base that has been hitting the snooze alarm for years. Feels like it’s coming. Illini, 31-7.

2001 record: 99-47-1 straight-up, 80-65-2 against the spread.

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