Wildcats have look of true contenders

June, 25, 2013
6/25/13
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Kanye West and Kim Kardashian nearly broke the Internet when they named their newborn baby North. Yes, North West.

By contrast, the limited hype surrounding the Northwestern football team seems pretty puny. But if your style is more BCS than TMZ, then perhaps you should be paying more attention to the crew from Evanston.

Talk about trending. The Wildcats won 10 games last year for the first time since 1995. They beat Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl for the program's first bowl victory since 1949. A glimmering new lakefront football training facility is coming soon, and Pat Fitzgerald is working on a top-20 recruiting class for 2014, according to ESPN.com.

Yet Fitzgerald -- who somehow, at 38, is the Big Ten's second-longest tenured head coach -- thinks his team ought to remain as hungry as Kanye awaiting his croissant order.

"Our program is on the rise, but it has a very strong hunter mentality," he told ESPN.com. "We're not going to allow ourselves to be hunted."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsIn January, Pat Fitzgerald coached Northwestern to its first bowl victory since 1949.
It's hard to sneak up on people when finishing the season at No. 17 in the Associated Press poll. Or when you're ranked in several preseason forecasts, including a No. 24 shoutout from colleague Mark Schlabach. Or when pundit Phil Steele recently writes that only 14 teams have all the characteristics of a national champion in 2013, and you're one of them.

Yet at the same time, Northwestern might not be getting nearly enough respect. Most people still see Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin as the teams behind the velvet rope in the Big Ten. Very few project so much as a Legends Division title for the Wildcats, while many wonder whether they can handle a difficult 2013 schedule that includes crossover games against Ohio State and Wisconsin and a stretch of three straight games in November versus Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State.

"People are going to give us respect if they want to," junior center Brandon Vitabile said. "We had a couple of close games with Michigan and Nebraska last year. When we beat those teams on a consistent level -- which we are capable of doing, I believe -- then we can be in that conversation and will be in the conversation."

Northwestern still battles for attention in the crowded Chicago sports market. Paparazzi don't hang out at Ryan Field. But be careful about underrating a team that has the potential to play in Indianapolis on the first Saturday of December, and possibly Pasadena on the first of January.

The Wildcats return 15 starters, including All-America running back/kick returner Venric Mark. They've gotten faster and more athletic at key spots on an improving defense. Fitzgerald somehow managed to successfully juggle a two-quarterback system last year with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian and plans to do so again this year. Colter confounds defenses with his running ability, while Siemian can guide the offense downfield with his throwing arm.

"I think we worked through some of the bugs we had a year ago," he said. "I believe both those guys can lead us to a championship, and we're going to need both because they're both pretty good."

Offensive line, where three starters are gone and injuries caused problems this spring, is the most pressing concern. Vitabile, a third-year starter, said he's taking on a bigger leadership role this summer and working on improving his communication since he'll have new faces on either side of him.

Fitzgerald handed out shirts that read "5:03" to his players this spring, a reminder of how close and also how far away they were from going undefeated in 2012. Vitabile said the shirts are still around this summer but aren't as prominent. As much as they were a cattle prod toward harder work, they're also a testament to just how competitive Northwestern was with everyone on its schedule a year ago. That inspires confidence.

"We were like five plays away last year," Vitabile said. "We just have to be more consistent and more detail-oriented. There's no magic formula. We just need to keep doing what we do -- just be better at it."

Even the modest expectations for the Wildcats are higher than they've been in several years. But Fitzgerald is confident that his team is mature enough to block that out and follow the plan.

"I see that as a lot of noise," he said. "When you're in the middle of the pack, you kind of go unnoticed. But in the extremes, there's a lot of noise, whether you're at the top or the bottom. As we're working our tails off to compete for championships, the noise is just getting louder and louder."

If they can find a way to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten opener at home on Oct. 5, expect the volume level to reach piercing decibels. It's not all that farfetched to suggest this is the year of North West and Northwestern.

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