Whether the calendar read April, June or August, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had October on his mind.
Before getting into the grind of the season, when the next game and the next opponent is all that matters, Fitzgerald took a wide-angle view of his program, its shortcomings and its areas to improve. October stared right back at him.
Northwestern has started seasons well under Fitzgerald, who boasts a 20-9 record in September to go along with a 2-0 mark in August. He has fared better in nonconference games than any of his recent predecessors, as his teams have swept the nonleague portion three times in the past five seasons (2008, 2010, 2012) -- something Northwestern failed to do from 1963 to 2007. Despite Northwestern's well-documented bowl struggles, Fitzgerald's teams also are strong finishers in the regular season, posting a 13-8 mark in November in his six previous years at the helm.
October has been a problem, though. Northwestern is just 10-15 in the month under Fitzgerald with multiple losses in five of his six seasons.
"We've got to be more consistent here on Saturdays in the month of October," Fitzgerald said this week. "We've been pretty salty in September; we've been pretty good in November; and October's our month."
Northwestern's goal of a better October is magnified after another 5-0 start and its first appearance in both national polls since the 2008 season, when it also started 5-0, then went 1-2 in October. The 24th-ranked Wildcats face their toughest test of the season Saturday at Penn State, which has rebounded from an 0-2 start to win its last three games by a combined score of 93-27. Penn State owns a 12-3 edge in the series with Northwestern, which hasn't scored a second-half touchdown against the Nittany Lions since the 2004 season.
The Wildcats haven't started a season 6-0 since 1962, the last time they were ranked No. 1 nationally. Although a win Saturday at Beaver Stadium won't catapult Northwestern up the polls, it would mark a good start to a pivotal month that also features games with Minnesota (road), Nebraska (home) and Iowa (home).
"We talked about [October] on our staff retreat, in length," Fitzgerald said. "Of our five hours of work time there, it was probably two hours of our conversation. We started talking about it last spring with the football team, and we've been talking about it now for a couple days. So hopefully you achieve what you emphasize."
October not only brings an upgrade in competition for Northwestern but also puts greater academic demands on players.
With Ohio State changing its academic calendar to semesters this year, Northwestern is the only Big Ten school on the quarter system, meaning Wildcats players start classes later than the rest of their Big Ten brethren. Fitzgerald points to the late start as a major advantage, but his players are in the same boat as their opponents as classes started Sept. 27 in Evanston.
"A lot more gets thrown on our plates in October," senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We finally started school again. But there's really no excuses. It's our job as older guys to make sure the younger guys are coming along faster once school starts, make sure they're getting to class but make sure they understand that football is still a commitment, too."
Ensuring the younger players strike the right balance is even more important because of their role in the game preparation process. According to Fitzgerald, Northwestern's scout teams have been better this year than ever before, and he would like that to continue throughout the Big Ten season.
"My hope," Fitzgerald said, "is that group, now that they get a little bit more on their plate instead of PlayStation and Facebook and sleep, that they continue to have the kind of workload and the kind of prep we need them to have for us to be successful."
Northwestern's theme for the month is "no excuses." Fitzgerald has challenged the team leaders "to bring the guys in and not allow the NCAA to hold 'em back," noting that the NCAA limits the coaches to 20 hours per week with their players.
"We've got to be able to do a terrific job of handling our business appropriately and going to class and being where we're supposed to be, which our guys do," Fitzgerald said. "We had a 3.04 team GPA last year. I'm not worried about us academically.
"We've got to play above a 3.0 on Saturday."