Steven M. Sipple: For intrigue, battle of NUs gets your attention

2013-07-25T12:45:00Z 2015-04-03T21:17:26Z Steven M. Sipple: For intrigue, battle of NUs gets your attentionBy STEVEN M. SIPPLE / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

CHICAGO — Pat Fitzgerald didn't seem to like the question.

We all know Northwestern's disadvantages recruiting-wise, but what are its advantages in that regard?

"I'm not sure what our disadvantages are ..." the eighth-year Wildcats head coach said Thursday before launching into a litany of advantages.

The 38-year-old Fitzgerald seemed fired up. Maybe he's always that way. Maybe he has to be that way coaching at Northwestern, with its inherent disadvantages, at least compared to the Big Ten football elite. At any rate, something's working for Fitzgerald, quite a sought-after fellow at Big Ten Media Days.

His team finished 10-3 last season, including 5-3 in the Big Ten. Northwestern defeated Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl, and Fitzgerald said he and about 70 friends and family partied deep into the Florida night.

It marked Northwestern's fifth straight bowl trip, its longest streak in modern times.

The rallying cry in Fitzgerald's program is now 5:03. That's how far the Wildcats were from an undefeated season last year, according to Fitzgerald.

Don't look now, but Northwestern has 13 starters back. The Wildcats have a purpose — to finish games. They have a wealth of skill talent on offense and a defense that made big strides last season.

No doubt, Northwestern has Nebraska's attention after the teams split back-to-back tussles in 2011 and 2012. The rubber match (of sorts) is Nov. 2 in Lincoln. No other game on the Huskers' regular-season schedule intrigues me more, not even the Nov. 9 clash at Michigan.

Seems many Nebraska fans expect the Huskers to be 7-0 entering the Northwestern game. If the season transpires as expected, Husker fans will expect a victory against the Wildcats. NU fans probably always will expect that victory, based on history alone.

Nebraska and Northwestern are miles apart in terms of football tradition and history, but not recent history. Northwestern shocked Nebraska in 2011 in Lincoln, adding insult by running the ball right at the Huskers in the fourth quarter.

The Wildcats had the Huskers on the ropes last season before Big Red's late rally ignited a six-game winning streak. Fitzgerald's crew also lost close games to Michigan and Penn State.

Northwestern strikes me as a program on the rise. But how far can it ascend? It's the only private university in the Big Ten. Its stadium seats just less than 50,000. The program still tries to live down the futility it experienced from the mid-1970s to early 1990s. Forever an underdog, or so it once seemed.

Now, the underdog packs a wallop. Ask Nebraska.

Or ask Venric Mark, the well-spoken Northwestern senior tailback.

"Our mind-set's a lot different this season," he said.

Finish games. Finish games. Finish games. That's been the Wildcats' offseason rallying cry.

"It takes a certain mind-set," the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Mark said. "It takes digging a little deeper. When your body gives out, your mind needs to kick on."

You see "5:03" on the back of Northwestern's workout gear — a constant reminder. You get the feeling the Wildcats aren't going away. Not now. Maybe not for a while.

Perhaps Nebraska-Northwestern is a budding rivalry. Snicker if you will. You probably once snickered at the thought of Kansas State becoming a heated Husker rival. K-State, like Northwestern, overcomes its share of recruiting disadvantages.

Recruiting advantages? Well, Northwestern coaches can sell a $220 million on-campus facility, announced last September, that will house the football program along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Fitzgerald points to Northwestern's academic reputation as the No. 1 advantage. The alumni base is powerful and potentially beneficial when it's time to look for a job. The proximity to Chicago is attractive. On and on.

As long as Fitzgerald is on the premises, Northwestern likely will be formidable. Maybe he'll stay for years. He has a great gig. If he goes 10-3, the fan base is giddy. If he goes 6-6, well, Northwestern is supposed to go 6-6.

Just don't tell the Wildcats that.

"As I said when I put the Gator Bowl trophy above my head, we're just getting started at Northwestern," Fitzgerald said.

He wants championships. That's the expectation, he said. Doesn't seem so far-fetched, does it?

"Coach Fitzgerald says we can compete with anybody," Mark said. "If he says that, we believe it. We believe in ourselves."

Nebraska likely would vouch for them.

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