By Adam Hensley
Northwestern uses a wildcat for its mascot, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald compares the program to a creature with mystical prowess.
“We’re kind of a unicorn in college football,” he said. “[We’ve] had the same staff now together going on eight seasons.”
This season, Fitzgerald’s team searches for something just as elusive — back-to-back bowl victories. Never in the history of Northwestern football have the Wildcats won bowl games two-straight years.
After a promising victory against Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl, things are looking up for the Purple and Black.
Totaling 17 wins over the past two seasons, the Wildcats’ goal isn’t out of reach. Under Fitzgerald’s command, Northwestern has won 10 games twice in the past five seasons.
There’s a buzz on campus in Evanston. Incoming players notice and want to be a part of a new, winning culture. “[Recruiting] is at an all-time high,” Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern received commitments from Ernest Brown and Trevor Kent, two defensive ends who rank in the top 16 at their position. Incoming defensive tackle Sam Miller and tight end Trey Pugh reside in the top 30 of their respective positions.
Aside from incoming talent, the Wildcats return some of the conference’s best players.
Senior running back Justin Jackson racked up yards (1,524) and touchdowns (15) last season, yet he wasn’t looking toward the National Football League.
“When that question [about entering the NFL] got asked, I was kind of blindsided,” Jackson said. “When you’re in it, you’re in it — you’re not thinking about anything like that.”
He said his mindset was so focused on preparations for the Pinstripe Bowl that the idea of going pro at the end of the season hadn’t crossed his mind.
“I know I made the right decision,” he said. “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else but here with these guys. I think we have an opportunity to be special this year.”
On defense, Godwin Igwebuike made a name for himself last season, proving to be one of the Big Ten’s top defensive players. The senior safety led the Wildcats with 108 tackles, and he also recorded 2 interceptions, broke up 7 passes, and forced and recovered a fumble.
At the Big Ten media days in Chicago, Igwebuike was asked if his rise in recognition mirrored Northwestern’s recent success.
He said yes.
“To put in so much work, to grind, to wake up early in the morning, to push yourself beyond places you thought you couldn’t go, and to see some of that come into fruition, and see some of the fame come from that, it’s cool,” Igwebuike said. “The next step is proving.”
Northwestern’s nonconference opponents (Nevada, Duke, and Bowling Green) don’t jump off the board, but three of the Wildcats’ first four Big Ten games come against teams with eight or more wins last season.
On the road against Wisconsin to start conference play, Northwestern will host Big Ten champion Penn State the following week. Following that matchup, the Wildcats will travel to face Maryland before hosting Iowa on Oct. 21 — a rematch of last season’s back-and-forth matchup, featuring a 38-31 Northwestern win.