The struggles of Illinois have been well chronicled.
Its only two wins this season have been against Western Michigan – which recently fired its head coach – and Charleston Southern. At 2-9, the Fighting Illini will close their season at Ryan Field on Saturday. No bowl game, only uncertainty.
Most important to Northwestern is avoiding a colossal letdown. A victory almost guarantees a prestigious New Year’s Day bowl appearance. A loss would dim an otherwise solid campaign.
But regardless of the opponent, Pat Fitzgerald said the outlook never changes.
“We focus on us,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for them and obviously, they’ve played better as things have moved forward. It’s tough in a transition year but our focus is, and will always be, on us.”
Against weaker opponents earlier in the season – Boston College in particular – NU was imperfect but finished the job. The Cats executed poorly in the red-zone against a sputtering BC team, but maintained its composure to earn the win.
Despite the Fighting Illini’s struggles, junior linebacker Damien Proby said there is no lack of concentration in the locker room. The team avoids worrying about its opponent, and instead works on its own performance.
“We take each game as its own game,” Proby said. “Our mission is to go 1-0 this week … it’s nothing against (the Illinois) program, and nothing towards their program. It’s about us playing our game and we know we can get the job done if we do that.”
Redshirt freshman linebacker Drew Smith noted the room for growth. Given the uneven performances in recent weeks, practices revolve around fine-tuning strategies on both sides of the ball. As much film as the Cats watch, preparation is about internal improvement.
“It’s a regular game,” Smith said. “We’re focused more about ourselves and what we need to get better, not so much on Illinois.”
Fitzgerald pointed out that the team has played well under pressure, and in tough environments. The Wildcats are no strangers to adversity. Last week was a testament to their fortitude, as they recovered from a tough loss with a 23-20 win at Michigan State.
The strong mentality begins with strong leadership from upperclassmen. Though the Cats have suffered “bad” losses in past seasons, this year’s group has demonstrated impressive resilience.
“As this team has grown up and matured, I’ve seen a calmness to them that I kind of like,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a little bit beyond their years, but I think that’s because of the seniors. They’ve done a nice job.”
To NU, every game seems important. This in-state rivalry has bowl implications and gives the team an opportunity to finish with an impressive 9-3 regular season record.
Fitzgerald is unconcerned with the emotional intensity that comes with Senior Day. He knows the Cats can bear down and focus on the task at hand: beating Illinois.
“When the ball goes in the air, that stuff doesn’t matter,” Fitzgerald said. “All that false bravado, that’s all it is. Guys have been pretty even-keeled. We’ve played a lot of really big games this year.”
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