Eleven years ago, a heralded linebacker from Northwestern entered the Big House for the final time in his playing career.
Pat Fitzgerald, a junior at the time, helped lead the underdog Wildcats to an upset victory over No. 6 Michigan. The win spurred Northwestern to a Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl – and was the last time Northwestern won at the Big House.
Now, more than a decade later, Fitzgerald will make his return to Michigan Stadium, on Saturday.
“I remember Pat Fitzgerald as being an outstanding player, a great competitor and a leader on the team,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “They won the championship and went to the Rose Bowl, so he was a guy that I thought represented himself and his school, the Big Ten Conference, intercollegiate football, I think in a very positive way.”
But Fitzgerald has assumed a new role for his return.
The 31-year-old was named head coach of the football team this summer after the tragic death of then-coach Randy Walker. Though the Wildcats (0-4 Big Ten, 2-6 overall) have struggled in their first season under Fitzgerald, teams around the Big Ten know the impact Fitzgerald can have.
“It was obvious that he had some special ability, and I’m sure that’s a big part of why they felt confident enough to name him the head coach there despite the fact that he’s so young,” Carr said.
Though Fitzgerald is known for his defensive prowess, the Wildcats displayed the potential explosiveness of their offense last weekend at Ryan Field.
Northwestern scored 38 points against Michigan State’s defense in less than three and a half quarters.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, games last 60 minutes.
The Northwestern defense allowed 38 points in the game’s final 25 minutes. The collapse opened the door for the Spartans to make the largest comeback in Division I-A history on their way to a 41-38 victory.
Northwestern will need a similar offensive performance (sans defensive meltdown) to have even a chance against No. 2 Michigan (5-0, 8-0). The Wolverines have waltzed through their schedule unscathed so far, and seem destined for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup with rival Ohio State on Nov. 18.
But Carr continues to stress to his players that media hype and accolades are worthless unless the team continues to win.
“We know we can’t listen to stuff like that,” linebacker David Harris said. “We just have to take it one game at a time, because in college football anybody can beat anybody on any given day. We just have to stay humble and keep trying to execute.”
The task of facing Northwestern’s spread offense should be enough to keep Michigan focused.
Though the troubles the Wolverines had against spread offenses during the 2004 season seem to be long gone, Michigan and its coaching staff still recognize the big-play capability an offense like Northwestern’s possesses.
“If you don’t do the things in pass defense that you needed to, then you create huge seams with your coverage, and, of course, that creates other problems,” Carr said.
The spread offense also gives running backs more room to run the ball. Michigan has won six of the last seven games in this series, but in its last loss to Northwestern (a 54-51 thriller at Ryan Field in 2000), the Wolverines allowed Wildcat running back Damien Anderson to rush for 268 yards.
This season, the Wolverines have the nation’s leading run defense. But don’t expect Michigan to look past Northwestern’s talented running back Tyrell Sutton, last season’s consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
“He’s a great, elusive running back,” defensive end Tim Jamison said. “He’s kind of fast, he’s not a power back, so he can wiggle through tackles, so you have to wrap him up.”
Beside all the questions Carr faced at his weekly press conference on Monday about spread offenses and overlooking Northwestern, the one that stumped him most stemmed back to Northwestern’s leader.
“What do you remember about Pat Fitzgerald as a player? And how do you think you would have been as a head coach in your thirties?” one reporter asked.
Carr spoke highly of Fitzgerald, then paused and smiled.
“And the rest of that question I’ll pass on,” he said.
Northwestern at Michigan
Matchup: Northwestern (0-4, 2-6); Michigan (5-0, 8-0)
When: Tomorrow, noon
Where: Michigan Stadium