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Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Handling the hype, but not Ohio State

By Adam Rittenberg



EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald's inspirational thought for the week leading up to the biggest game of his Northwestern coaching tenure didn't come from a world leader, an ancient philosopher, a religious figure or even a fellow football coach.

It came from a poet, sort of. Not Wordsworth or Byron or Yeats, although William Jonathan Drayton Jr. sounds like the name of a man who could have rubbed elbows with them.

As the countdown began for 4-0 Northwestern's much-anticipated showdown against No. 4 Ohio State, Fitzgerald quoted the man with the giant clock around his neck, former Public Enemy hype man Flavor Flav.

"Don't believe the hype," Fitzgerald said at last Monday's team meeting. "Don't believe the hype."

Handling the hype would be chief among the challenges for a Northwestern program not accustomed to receiving so much attention.

Saturday night's showdown with Ohio State had been billed as Northwestern's biggest game since its magical 1995 season, when Fitzgerald, then an All-American linebacker, helped lead the purple to Pasadena. ESPN's "College GameDay" made its first trip to Northwestern since 1995, and the number of potential distractions, from media requests to ticket requests, swelled throughout the week.

The national spotlight Northwestern sought for years had finally arrived. How would the Wildcats perform, especially against an Ohio State team that had won 28 of the teams' past 29 meetings and owned the longest winning streak in FBS at 17 games?

They handled the hype, but they couldn't quite handle Ohio State, falling 40-30. Northwestern executed its game plan, collected takeaways and consistently moved the ball, but several mistakes cost the team in its upset bid. In the end, a botched exchange and a debated spot on a fourth-and-1 plunge in Buckeyes territory left the Wildcats inches short of a chance for a program-boosting win.

"We were a step away," Fitzgerald told his staff the day after the game. "We were a step away from a tackle, a step away from first down on fourth down. There's a lot of things we can correct, but if we bottle this effort up for seven more games, we're gonna be really hard to beat."

Northwestern opened its doors to ESPN.com last week, allowing complete access to meetings, practices and training sessions, as well as the locker room and the sideline on game day.

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