Champions Are Crowned In November

I found it really interesting that Fitz went public with his off-season concentration on the October challenges this past September. Fitz is now just 12-17 in the month of October, a scary stat sight indeed.  Since and including 2010 we’re just 5-8, and it is safe to say our play in the month we are about to depart has been the primary reason we’ve failed to get to the next level. Fitz’s former head coach, Gary Barnett, used to wear a t-shirt proclaiming champions are crowned in November.  For the first time in the Fitz era, Northwestern has a shot to win the conference as we enter November.

Fitz is 13-8 in November and if you really put it under the scope, it should have an asterisk. The 2010 season featured two games after Dan Persa ended his season with a ruptured Achilles and we promptly lost to Illinois at Wrigely and the painful debacle in Madtown. Consider this – we went 3-1 in 2008, 3-0 in 2009 and 3-1 last season with the outlier being the 2010 campaign as I described when we went 1-3.  You can get really nerdy and start going team by team to really try and substantiate the quality of opponent, which is merited, but I can tell you this month includes many signature wins including a previously unbeaten (9-0) #4 Iowa team, a top ten Nebraska team a top 20 Wisconsin team and an Illini team that was pretty good at the time.

The following is pure speculation on my part as I haven’t asked Fitz directly about it, but I do believe the uber-passionate head coach has taken a longer lens of the season, more of a marathon approach than a sprint, if you will. Fitz came out after the Indiana game which set a school record for total yards of offense (704) and claimed that it was just chapter one.  We all know and have endlessly questioned and debated what has happened since then – an offense that has declined precipitously – mostly due to purposeful platooning of two QBs whose mere presence tipped off defenses in a most predictable way. I’ve had the sense all year long that we’ve been slowly rolling out a master plan that was building towards November.  We sure as heck got snakebitten along the way (read, Penn State, Nebraska) and flatout outcoached in those two games as we let their defense dictate our offensive strategy.

Gary Barnett also always had an in the hallway catchphrase and one of my favorites was “the great ones adjust”.  Fitz and company will have to come to this November with that mindset and utilize it in-game if we’re going to repeat our November success.  I’m hoping Fitz reconsiders his recent statement when he tried to apologetically inform reporters that trickeration wasn’t in his playbook.  All you have to do is look at his predecessors – Walk and Barnett – both of whom he admires and respects greatly – to see that trickeration in moderation is an essential part of winning.

Randy Walker might very well have been the most old school football coach in the B1G.  The kind of guy that benched players for fumbling and had them sleep with a ball at night. He put the ultra in ultra conservative when it came to his approach to the media, sticking to his way and being very comfortable in it as well. Yet, Walker implemented the spread at a time when it was nascent. He’d think nothing of one of his WRs tossing the ball downfield.  Fitz even tried to pay tribute to Walk with his signature spin on the fumblerooski with the final play of the Outback Bowl – my favorite call that didn’t go right of alltime.

Gary Barnett was the master of trickeration.  Again, though, it was always used as a way to adjust in-game. No play sticks out to me more than Barnett’s Gator formation play in the ’96 Michigan game. The ‘Cats were down 16-0 through three quarters and then mounted a comeback.  It was fourth quarter time and a do-or-die 4th down. We had five or six “receivers” spread out to the wing (way pre spread era) and through a screen pass to D’Wayne Bates, who just bullrushed over Michigan thanks to the blocking of a bevy of ‘Cats that picked up a key 1st down that helped us go on to score.  Michigan didn’t know what hit them.  The great ones adjust.

I’m thrilled that we stuck with Kain Colter and simply ran it down Iowa’s throats. I’m hopeful that McCall will open up the playbook against Michigan and especially Michigan State and let him throw regularly. It shouldn’t be deep balls, but back to our ways of 6-9 yard pass routes that will simply open up things for us.  He’ll even need to connect early downfield to prevent the Michigans from putting a safety in the box.  With Kain in the game, the two best defensive coordinators in the conference (by far) will be simply saying “if you’re going to beat us, you’ll have to beat us deep”.  The temptation will be to revert back to the platoon system of Trevor coming in to open things ups, but that’s not the type of ingenuity that it will take to beat Michigan and Michigan State, at least on offense.

From a macro perspective, the 2008-2011 seasons seemed to go much better in November because our defense – from middling to atrocious early in those seasons, picked up steam and improved. Our offense was humming in September in most of those seasons and while we had years and games we struggled in the red zone, there was a feeling of confidence among fans every time we had the ball that we’d march it downfield. We may not score, but the concept of a three-and-out was on the fan’s mindset as a shutout on defense was.

Now, it is the opposite. Our defense, as PRR laid out yesterday, has been steady despite what the stats may tell you. Obviously, the injuries at CB will have a huge impact in the gameplan, but amazingly, there is a confidence in our defense – through 3 quarters – that hasn’t existed since Hankwitz’s first year in Evanston. However, I think it is fair to say, our chance at winning the division will come down to our offense performing at previous year levels. Has Fitz been holding out a November gameplan? Will we make adjustments now and let the accurate Colter throw the ball in his short to mid yardage range sweet spot? Will we finally utilize the bevy of talent at WR to be more balanced? We shall see.  The great ones adjust and champions are crowned in November. The two go hand in hand and for the first time in the Fitz era, we’re playing for high stakes as we flip the calendar from Halloween to November.

LTP N Flag Project

The photos keep trickChapultapec Castle in Mexico City.ling in from around the globe. Today we feature Daniel K. and his makeshift “flag” – his t-shirt – on a recent visit to Chapultapec Castle in Mexico City. If you have a shot of a Northwestern flag from your home or on a visit, send it to us at and we’ll add it to our map (see navigation bar across the top of this page).

Daniel takes the purple pride to Mexico City!
  • DR

    We need help from Nebraska too as we move through November. I don’t necessarily think there’s going to be that much difference or that Fitz has been holding anything back from a game planning standpoint. I think we are probably not going to see much of Trevor against Michigan or MSU….he’ll probably get a ton of time against Illinois. So it’s going to be a ground game next weekend, similar to the Iowa game plan. Against MSU at more balanced approach, hopefully with more play action and some screens, or quick passes to the flats for our big, under utilized receiving corps. The key though, as you point out obliquely above, is possession time. I’m a bit surprised, in spite of the poor possession statistics this year, how gassed our defense seems at times, especially in Q4 – this is a new and concerning twist. Didn’t we used to be the best conditioned team in the Big 10? I haven’t seen too many instances of the other side bent over holding their pants this year.

    This is a very young team, maybe that has a lot to do with this aspect of 2012. The first down and possession stats against Iowa were pretty surprising, but Iowa had no control of the line when we had the ball, so our average yards gained were 2 and 3 times what theirs were (I think).

    I don’t think we get an obvious advantage at the point of attack against Michigan nor MSU, and that with the lack of conditioning and experience of our guys has me not too confident going into the great state of Michigan back to back weekends.

    I’d take 8-4 right now, which includes a proper thrashing of the Illinois – and I mean lets really run the score up on those guys – then off to a mid level bowl and win! I think the games, save Illinois, will be close, perhaps a long game winner by our kicker, but the odds of winning both games in Michigan, realistically, have to be about 10-1, maybe worse. Odds of one win, 5-1.

    Odds of running the table are too long to put in print.

    But next year the sky is the limit for this group if all stay healthy.

    • I’ve got us at 9-3 as we’ll split the Michigan games. Being optimistic. No doubt, regardless of Sparty record, we’ll be underdogs in both games, albeit likely a 3-point spread at MSU based on home field. I’ve got visions of getting a rare 10th win in the bowl game which in addition to getting the monkey off the back in the bowl losing streak, also puts Fitz solely in first place as alltime winningest coach with win #50.

      • DR

        it’s just our age difference @LTP. I’m too old and cynical. I love your general outlook always…..either way let’s make sure we kick the sh*t out of the junior college to the south.

        • No, I am too. It’s a lot less stressful to be positive knowing neither one will impact the outcome/results. My father-in-law, a Stanford game goes in to every single game convinced they’ll lose just so he won’t be disappointed. Having attended every home game and several road trips during my ’91-’94 tenure at school, trust me the cynical nature is embedded in the brain. Truth of the matter is that Sparty lost to the very same Iowa team we just beat and Michigan isn’t the Michigan on the front of the jersey. Both very beatable teams (as are we).

          • Henry in CT

            I think Colter is going to have to throw it more to make this offense really work. Against PSU and UNL we clearly thought the passing game was necessary so we went with Siemian but he wasn’t effective and we still don’t know how effective he might be if the QB job was his. For now the lesson has to be that it can’t be Colter-run, Siemian-pass. It has to be Colter throwing it as well as running and giving it to Mark and hope that we can keep the defense off the field as much as possible.

          • Agreed.

          • JimB

            Colter throwing has not ended well way too often. Siemien has to be involved if we are going to throw the ball with any degree of effectiveness.

          • Jpklock

            Involved, I won’t argue against. But, Colter also has to be involved in the passing game (as he was against Indy– just enough to keep everybody honest…)

      • PBRCat

        In fairness, Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf coached in an era when overtime victories were not provided for. His Wildcat teams also had seven games end as “ties.” He also coached when there were less games scheduled each season.
        Fitz may soon surpass Pappy’s record in Evanston, but it will take much more for him to equal what Waldorf did elsewhere (Kansas, Oklahoma, and California). Win #50 should be celebrated, but “cum grano salis.”

        • DR

          accipere purpura pasadena

      • Watching and (Mostly) Waiting

        If we do split the Michigan games, whichever one we win will be our signature win for the regular season, hands down. Nice to think the best is yet to come! Also, hadn’t thought about the fact that entering November, our chance to win the division (albeit slim) is the first such November opportunity in the Fitz era. Small step in right direction.
        As for Fitz vs. Pappy, is there any other major school with no coach that has ever won 50 games? Another monkey off our backs, and while schedules/eras are so different as to defy comparison, I agree, when Fitz gets his 100th win (hopefully not too many years from now), that should be enough to sweep up all the remaining votes.

      • nwujames

        So I KNOW I’m getting ahead of myself, but I have an interesting hypothetical rolling around in my head. Let’s say Michigan State beats Nebraska today, and we are able to win out the rest of our season and end up in a situation where there’s a 3 or 4-way tie for conference records. If it were just UNL and NU tied, UNL wins the tie. However, if MSU were to beat UNL, and we were to beat MSU, then I believe it would go back to overall record – in which case NU wins (I believe). Is this right?

    • PBRCat

      I was wondering the same thing: Northwestern used to be so well conditioned that the team could wear down its opponents and exhaust them. I doubt that the 2012 team could stand to play overtime as often as some of Walker’s teams did on a regular basis.
      Northwestern used to be a team that could pull out victories late in the game consistently with only a few seconds on the clock. The team managed to do so against Syracuse to start the season, but missed an opportunity to do the same against Nebraska.
      I am really concerned about the statistics that suggest that the Wildcats cannot score too often in the 4th quarter of games.

      • Cats98

        what, so did the Offense get gassed in the 4th quarter? no.

        The D was tired because PSU/NEB POUNDED US all game long AND our offense continually gave the ball RIGHT BACK to the defense. the best conditioned D in the country would get tired. Football is a power sport not an endurance sport.

        All this talk about “oh we win in the 4th quarter we have great conditioning” no its about what happens in quarters 1-3 and how the coaches execute the gameplanning.

        Northwestern teams under Walk might have been well conditioned but they were unable to field solid Defenses. NU Conditioning was stuck in the 1970’s until a couple years ago, and it takes time for the benefits of the program to be seen.

        • PBRCat

          “Northwestern teams under Walk might have been well conditioned but they were unable to field solid Defenses.”

          Which is why Walker’s Offenses were all about running up the score, whenever possible, and trying not to leave any possible points on the field. In the current season, Northwestern is getting absolutely throttled by opponents when it comes to scoring in the fourth quarter.

          It seems to me that too often Fitzgerald acts if the Wildcats open up a ten or twelve point lead that he can milk time off of the clock and call upon the Defense to make all of the stops in the second half. Unfortunately, Northwestern has not had a truly solid, stifling defense since 1995.

          The second half play calling on Offense has been too conservative and this has resulted in many obvious and predictable plays and too many three and outs. The Cats have not dominated in terms of time of possession in many recent games.

          Northwestern needs to put more points on the board and convert on more third downs. I am really shocked and how poor the Wildcats’ short passing game has become. A few years ago, this was a strength for the “O.”

        • JM

          Exactly. The key to our great fourth quarters under Walker was the number of offensive plays we’d run prior to the fourth quarter. This year’s offenses are not sustaining drives due to a combination of poor passing offense and big-play ability (Mark, mostly).

  • I think Gator was actually run on a fourth and 1. Pass/lateral to DWayne Bates who was split left with a pair of linemen directly in front of him. Schnur just had a center and two guards with him.

    • It was definitely to Bates, and I do believe you’re right that it was 4th down, b/c i remember the do-or-die anxiety of that moment, I just forget the details. Time to head over to NUHighlights and revisit….

  • cece

    Let’s get to doing what we can actually do about helping the ‘Cats….make sure that stadium is filled with purple and black and cheering loudly for the one remaining home game. Not going to the game? post your tickets for other ‘Cats fans on the handy LTP exchange. DO NOT under any circumstances give them to an Illinois fan. We understand bringing such a fan with you to the game (although I would not do it), but giving away/selling your tickets to an Illinois fan should be a season ticket losing punishable offense. Get friends, get dressed in purple, get loud. Support the ‘Cats.

    • I’m not afraid to say it – the Illini football fans are pretty poor at traveling. i think attendance at the season finale, barring us winning the next two, will be non-conference low to mid 30,000 level.

      • thxgiving weekend as well so student section wont be full

        • cece

          Let’s get to work!

  • Fanaticat

    “All you have to do is look at his predecessors – Walk and Barnett – both of whom he admires and respects greatly – to see that trickeration in moderation is an essential part of winning.”
    100%. We would not have won either Michigan 1995 or 1996 without trick, or “tricky” plays. We would not have won a couple games under Walk without “fastball” and “changeup.” The last really tricky play I remember was the failed fastball in teh Outback Bowl. Maybe it wasn’t the right choice, but some kind of trick there was necessary since we weren’t making any field goals and it wasn’t certain we would get to the 2 yard line again to score a TD.
    There could be so much potential trickeration with the speed we have at QB/RB, and the fact we have a true QB (not even just a converted QB) who splits out to WR at times. Siemian can run OK too, so even a screen to Colter and throwback to him with the defense overselling to stop Colter on the screen coudl pick up 10 yards.

    • PDXCat

      Other than the Outback Bowl (fastball and the nifty 2-point conversion), I don’t think I can remember a trick play in the Fitz era. I assume there are no fake kicks of any kind in the playbook. My assumption is Fitz would see it as too risky (like attempting to score from your own 30 with 2 minutes and 3 timeouts left in the first half). Ironic (?) given “trick” plays have relatively low risk as nobody is expecting it. My dad coached high school and kicked onside 90% of the time to start games. Probably recovered 95 % of them. Who would expect it? Like the Rose Bowl or Indiana vs. Sparty. And those kinds of plays are real momentum boosters/changers.

      • PBRCat

        I remember Barnett once called for an onside kick on the opening kick off against Michigan once (I believe that this may have been in 1997 or 1998 because Brian Gowins was the kicker). I do not think that NU recovered, but it was a bold move.

  • SteveR

    One other thing at which GB was masterful when it came to trickeration….onside kicks. The most memorable one was at the start of the second half of the Rose Bowl which got us back in the game. Can’t recall any onside kicks in the Fitz era, other than maybe late in the game when we were playing catch-up. Well executed onside kicks which come at the least expected time are among the best momentum changers in football….wish we tried one now and then.

    • I can’t remember one, but I do remember 2005 as the year of the onside kick. The Iowa comeback and then of course, the insanity of the Sun Bowl and having 2 returned for TDs on consecutive kickoffs.

      • polymersci

        I was at the Sun Bowl and we visited the NU hospitality suite at the team hotel after the game. The coaches were there and I remember Fitz (then an assistant under RW) was just livid and bouncing off the walls. Maybe those two onside kick returns for TD’s just put a bee in his bonnett…

    • Webster

      I believe NU started the 2nd half of the 2006 Illinois game with a surprise onside kick.

  • bandcat

    My trifecta pick is Kain passing to 21,40 and 80… Go Cats!!!

  • Nate

    The B1G is bottom-heavy this year, no team who is eligible (otherwise I’d say OSU is pretty damn good) is head-and-shoulders above the rest. Nebraska could very well lose 3/4, just as NU could look awful during the double-dip in Michigan.
    I say empty out the playbook with no regrets. Yeah, NU put themselves behind the 8 ball a little by dropping those 2 heartbreakers, but like Fitz said, they’re in the proverbial front seat in the Legends.
    Time to get crazy on offense – throw double passes, run some reverses, maybe a hook-and-ladder play or two. Open it up!
    There is absolutely ZERO guarantee that NU will have this kind of opportunity next year, the year after, or 5 years from now. Go for it all, and feel good about doing it.

    If NU sweeps the Michigan Tour, and they have a chance to clinch the Legends against the pumpkinheads, I hope RF is packed with Purple, a la ’95-’96. (I’ll be there regardless, and so should everyone else) I’d love to see this team in a high-quality Jan 1. bowl, no matter the apparent mismatch on paper. Crazy things happen when NU plays in bowls, so I’m not really worried about the bowl game. Why settle for 8-4 when 10-2 is there for the taking? All they gotta do is FINISH!

  • JimB

    Kain has been great lately, when we had leads but if we have to throw when we are behind is it really Kain Colter you want throwing the ball? Not me. That is when Seimian will determine wether we move to the next level or not. He’s a sophomore but getting valuable playing time. In the right situation HE not Colter will determine how far we go. like it or not.

  • cardiac_cat_fan

    Great point in stating that defenses dictate NU’s (McCall’s) game planning and play calling. He has to impose our offense on teams or at least make the attempt. Example: NEB rolled up on the line all day agaisnt baiting NU to pass deep. what happened on a NU score: line backer commits hard to the option look outside and Venric rips it 80 yards untouched up the middle. because they were rolled up on the line there’s no one deep to make the tackle. we’re that good run blocking that we can impose our rushing attack. McCall just needs to be more agressive and creative.

  • Nate

    I don’t think anyone mentioned this, but Fitz was on the radio “the McNeil and Spiegel Show” yesterday…a good listen, especially the part when Danny Mac plays devil’s advocate and “calls out” NU fans who just want NU to break the bowl drought in the easiest bowl possible. Jump to the 3:00 for the beginning of the interview, the first 2:59 for some reason is the interview and then it stops and goes back to the beginning, so to reduce confusion, go to 3:00 and enjoy.

    • DT

      All sounds great and easy for McNeil to go from critic to cheerleader as benefits the interview. I’d like to know how many games Mc Neil attends at Ryan Field per year (or how long he has had season tickets in his name…) and for that mattter, how many bowl losses he has attended on his own nickel at that… All this talk about winning conference championships, bowls, et al are admirable goals and perfunctory mission statements. The actual implementation of winning those contests is the devil in the detail, or at least has been the case at NU since 2000 and 1949 respectively.. On that basis, I’ll break into a chorus of “Oh Happy Day”, should NU win a bowl game, be it in The Rose Bowl, Ford Field, or some concrete slab with no soul in Central Florida or The Lonestar State… And since when did The Outback Bowl become a big achievement for a program that “Took the Purple To Pasadena” and to my understanding, still aspires to that? In one trip to Tampa, we faced a 7-5 Auburn team, without Cam Newton as opposed to the Motor City Bowl, where NU faced a Top 20 opponent with an All American QB from The MAC… The bowl itself is not the harbinger of quality.. It’s the match up that counts… Count me in on wanting the most favorable for NU to win… Bravado and bluster are just that… So is 0-10..

      • Nate

        I don’t know how much of a follower of NU McNeil is…my guess not so much until the station he is employed by started promoting NU fball/bball back in 2010. It’s easy to just brush critics like Mac aside and say they don’t matter when in fact they do, since they are (like it or not) the voices of the sports fan in Chicagoland. I think Mac set the bar at one of the Florida bowls per his column in the Trib last Friday, so it’s safe to say that the expectations of the outsiders is a 8-4/9-3 finish. But, like I believe, why settle when 10-2 and Indy are attainable?
        I’d like the streak to end too, but I always wanted it to be a high-profile bowl that got the attention of the outsiders and doubters, how sweet it would be to slay that proverbial two-headed dragon.
        I like the question Spiegel asked him about why they can’t finish the “big” games like PSU or UNL. Fitz going into defense-mode by saying they stopped SYR, VANDY, MINN and IOWA was expected. Fitz needs to pump up the unbiased Chi sports fan, and if it takes a certain spin, then by golly do it, as long as if they have a 10-point lead in AA next week in the 4th, it holds up. Other than that, the interview was a “win” for Fitz and NU.

        • DT

          First off, thanks for taking the time to post the interview.. I was not aware of it… Hard to argue with much of what you suggest and as everybody who comments here, you are entitled to your point of view… Obviously, I differ with you to some extent, in that as one fan, I just want this bowl losing over, period.. Against whom or where it takes place, differs little to me.. Finally, I picked up Coach Fitz loud and clear that this is a different team and group of players that should not in essence be saddled wtih the misses of the past… I’m hip to that.. Moreover, the commonality with the past is Fitz himself… If I’m not mistaken he has been part of 8 losses since 95, including 2 as a player… I gotta think that gap in his resume looms large in the gut, or one would hope..

          • Nate

            Good point…I’m sure Fitz breaking his leg in ’95, keeping him out of the Rose Bowl, getting torched by Peyton in ’96, and all the other bowl losses and tough regular season losses he’s been a part of as a coach keep him going, it would for me.
            I respect your opinion that you just want the damn streak to end…it’s really hard to argue that point. I guess all I can say is let the final 3 games play out and we’ll see where NU is. I don’t think they’ll get squeezed out of a Florida bowl by a 7-5 B1G team unless that bowl committee has not watched tape of the last 4 NU bowl games…all close (sort of) at the end, and NU fans do travel well. I think it’s safe to say if they just beat Illinois, they’ll still get a good enough bowl with a decent shot to end the drought. But I’m not gonna worry about that now, I’m pumped for Michigan!
            Finally, I’m curious of your thoughts as part of the group that McNeil said had “a losers mentality” about being happy about potentially ending the drought in Detroit or Dallas after the UNL loss and being resigned to that fate. I doubt most in your camp after the UNL loss said “ah, well…at least we have Detroit!” I think that was just Mac being smarmy and controversial there.

          • DT

            Smarmy, controversial, and stupid… As I said, a win in Detroit, Dallas or Houston for that matter, would make me feel just fine, particularly given we are 0-3 to date in those so called inferior bowls… Amazing hubris from anyone to suggest NU is “Better” than opponents we would play there… Anyway, good chat and again, thanks for the link on the interview…