Believe it or not, we are just a scant 149 days away from Northwestern opening the 2012 football season in Syracuse, N.Y.
Man, the offseason flies by quickly. OK, so maybe it is not going by so quickly. After all, Northwestern still has a little more than a week of spring practice left. That does not mean the focus is not on the Orange already.
The trip to the Carrier Dome is very clearly in the back of Pat Fitzgerald’s mind as he runs his team through it paces this spring. This is the longest week of the year after all, and you only get one chance to go 1-0 on the first try each season.
Perhaps some of the early early early preparation for Syracuse is a remembrance of what happened the last time Northwestern traveled to Upstate New York. That was Mike Kafka’s big coming out party as he set a Northwestern record for most consecutive completions. Yet, the game is remembered more for the team’s failures on defense.
The Wildcats struggled to contain quarterback Greg Paulus and wide receiver Mike Williams throughout the day. Williams made 11 catches for 209 yards. And, of course, the game was decided by the rare Mike Kafka interception that was returned into Syracuse’s field goal range.
This loss stuck with us because of this crazy finish even though the team ended up going to the Outback Bowl that year.
Opening at Syracuse is not going to be much easier. Doug Marone has turned the Orange program around and pushed them back into the Big East picture (well, before that conference completely fell apart). Syracuse finished last year 5-7 but scored some big home victories and were 4-1 at the Carrier Dome before a five-game losing streak derailed their season.
At this point, it does not seem like Northwestern is installing any specific gameplan to deal with the Orange. But the trip is certainly present.
For the third straight year, Northwestern will start on the road against a BCS-conference school. Northwestern was ready for trips to Vanderbilt and to Boston College the last two years. But Syracuse offers a much different challenge.
Commodores fans are not known for their crowd noise and the Eagles’ Alumni Stadium was invaded with a healthy dose of purple. Syracuse’s Carrier Dome is known as the Loud House and the confines will not be so friendly.
It is not like Northwestern has never won in loud environments. The Wildcats own wins in their last visits to Ann Arbor and Lincoln. It is something every Big Ten team has to deal with in playing in the Big Ten. But NU is cognizant of the task ahead of it for that opener that is five months away.
As part of Tuesday’s practice, Northwestern had noise piping in to the field to simulate some of the crowd noise the team will experience this year. That certainly will be part of the challenge in Game One this season.
The other part is that Syracuse has largely kept their practices closed and is actively advising its players not to talk to the media before its spring game on Saturday. There is not much to know at this point about Syracuse that Northwestern can prepare for. The Orange are, like the Wildcats, getting back to fundamentals to erase a horrid end to their season.
An eye, though, is clearly already on the September 1 opener. Man, it cannot get here soon enough.