CHICAGO — The adversity pendulum now swings the opposite direction for Northwestern football.
No longer are the Wildcats a league welcome mat. That era ended when Coach Pat Fitzgerald was hitting fools as an All-American linebacker in the mid-1990s. But with a 10-win campaign in tow and its first bowl victory since 1947, Northwestern now must deal with the potential for entitlement.
“When adversity strikes, we’ve got to be able to handle it,” Fitzgerald said. “Adversity isn’t all negative; obviously you have guys get hurt, lose a game. My feeling is it’s easier to overcome that than when you have success. It’s human nature, especially in America today with an instant gratification society, is to get complacent when you have success. So that’s why we go back to the process.”
In 2012, Northwestern experienced little adversity when it came to health. All five offensive lineman and all four linebackers started every game. The same running back opened 13 times. There was little movement at defensive line and in the secondary.
The consistency allowed Northwestern to reach full potential against equal opponents. The Wildcats boxed Iowa’s ears for 349 rushing yards. Northwestern beat bowl opponents Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Minnesota, Michigan State and then Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. But Northwestern found ways interesting and painful ways to lose beat against better competition.
Nebraska rallied from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit with six minutes to go to beat the Wildcats 29-28. Northwestern led Penn State 28-17 with 10 minutes left before surrendering 22 points. Perhaps most grueling was giving up a 53-yard pass inside of 10 seconds remaining, allowing Michigan to attempt a game-tying field goal. The Wolverines won the game in overtime.
Northwestern’s 10-3 mark looks good on paper. But it easily could have been 11, 12 or maybe even 13 wins. Northwestern was 5 minutes, 3 seconds from an undefeated season. That time, that number was branded into the team’s workout regimen and their T-shirts this offseason.
“When we look back on our season, there were a lot of games that we lost in the fourth quarter,” Northwestern running back Venric Mark said. “That was because we didn’t finish. This year we focused on finishing, working hard.
“Five oh three — 503 reps of whatever the coaches want us to do. It’s not easy, but it teaches us that mental toughness. That’s one of our main focuses.”
Northwestern returns all of its skill position players, including Mark. He was a second-team All-Big Ten running back with 1,366 rushing yards and 12 scores. He was even more dangerous as a punt returner, taking two back for scores. He was named a first-team All-American.
Mark said he models his game after Chicago Bears kick returner Devin Hester. Both are short in stature — Mark stands 5-foot-8, Hester 5-11 — but deliver large results.
“I played a little bit my freshman and sophomore year, but that was my first taking a starting role,” said Mark, a senior. “I don’t think I just have high expectations now. I think I had high expectations last year. I didn’t know what to expect. I know what to expect now. I know how teams play. I’m becoming more mature in terms of watching more films, doing the little things.”
The Wildcats return an explosive playmaker at quarterback with Kain Colter, who also shifts to wide receiver and running back. Defensively, Northwestern brings back the Big Ten’s leader in sacks, Tyler Scott, who had nine. They’re experienced at both kicker and punter.
Northwestern now carries a swagger with a whiff of attitude. Fitzgerald teaches humility with an edge. He wants his players to be leery of those outside the locker room celebrating their success.
“Those same guys, those same reporters, those same fans might pat you on the back but as soon as you lose, they’re talking behind your back,” Mark said. “When we go back to Evanston, it’s great to have people around us that love us. But at the end of the day, we’re still hungry.”
“I think we all know Northwestern is a great academic school. Beyond that we’re also a football school.”
Northwestern gets the heavyweight treatment this year and plays league favorite Ohio State under the lights at Ryan Field. The Wildcats also see Wisconsin, Michigan Nebraska, Michigan State and rivals Iowa and Illinois.
The excitement is contagious in Evanston, which thrills Fitzgerald. But falling 5:03 from an undefeated schedule no longer is acceptable for this group of Wildcats.
“We’re far from where we’re going to be,” Fitzgerald said. “And to me that’s the driving force in our program, is to take the necessary steps to be competitive for a championship.”