The Curious Case of Pat Fitzgerald
Some time ago, an arbitrary top five list that made it into the 2014 preview of Appalachian State ranked the top coaches serving at their alma maters. It went like this:
1. David Shaw, Stanford
2. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
3. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
4. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
5. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
First, I want to say I wish my name was Kliff Kingsbury. Second, it's important to underscore just how important Pat Fitzgerald is to the Northwestern Wildcats. He broke a streak of nine bowl losses to get them a bowl win against Mississippi State, their second ever. He's already the winningest coach in NU history, with 55 wins. If that seems modest, well, it is - almost no one has lost more in the Big Ten than Northwestern. That's not to say it's a program without a rich history; in fact, it has a curious history, and Fitzgerald may be the most curious of them all.
The 10-win season they accomplished in 2012 was the second 10-win season since 1903, all of it in the Big Ten. In fact, NU was a founding member of the Western Conference, what would be the Big Ten, in 1896. They had been an independent, but decided to join what would turn out to be the oldest collegiate athletic conference in the United States. There were some golden moments over the next century - the 1949 Rose Bowl, the Dick Hanley years around the turn of the Great Depression - but success has always faded quickly for Northwestern, and the golden moments are few and far between.
In fact, look no further than Dick Hanley. He went on to be a Major in the Marine Corps during World War II, but not before becoming, at the time, the Wildcats' winningest football coach. He grew a 4-4 squad in 1927 into a two-time Big Ten champion by 1931 and was at one point 29-12-1. For whatever reason, the glory didn't last, and his record over the next three seasons tumbled to 7-14-3, and, like that, Hanley's coaching career was effectively ended. Pappy Waldorf took over after him, and got the Wildcats back to being Big Ten champions in his second year - but then was 30-35-4 from then on. He did manage to convince Otto Graham to play football, and Graham became one of the legendary quarterbacks of the NFL. His first game for the Wildcats, Graham scored three touchdowns against Kansas State. Another golden moment. But then the year after he left, they won one game.
Three- to five-win seasons became the norm in Evanston until 1976, when things took a downturn. Under John Pont and then Rick Venturi, the 1976-1980 Wildcats went 3-51-1. Then they went 0-11 the next year under Dennis Green. By 1995, when Northwestern finally broke through the ice and claimed a 10-win season, it did so by breaking a streak of 23 straight years of 4-7 or worse. Only 2 of those seasons were 4-7. And, what did Gary Barnett do, after going 19-5 in 1995-96? Well, he went 8-16 and then left for Colorado, of course.
And so, we make it to Fitzgerald, who wants to coach at Northwestern, is an alum who played well for Northwestern, and has already brought more golden moments to Northwestern football. He's the only Wildcat ever inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, as a player or coach, and he has a chance to do it as both. Really, Fitz is Northwestern. It's why his job is so safe. And program security means a lot for a program like NU - it gives them a face and helps recruiting. But job security aside, there's still the matter of winning games, which is no easy feat. He's done it for the most part - with three losing seasons in eight tries and years of 10, 9, and 8 wins.
But, how much is he Northwestern? After a stretch of going 18-5, Fitz promptly followed it up with a 7-game losing streak and also has downward streaks of 5 games, 6 of 8, and 8 of 10. It was a reminder of Northwestern's precipitous history. Now the team will try to reach that 10-win mountain again in the B1G West, with Fitz at the helm and a general positive momentum to the program. But if history is any indication, NU fans should enjoy every minute of it. Success always, somehow, manages to fade fast in Evanston.
|Penn State Nittany Lions||750||362||43|
|Illinois Fighting Illini||578||546||50|
|Ohio State Buckeyes||849||318||53|
|Rutgers Scarlet Knights||626||606||42|
|Minnesota Golden Gophers||660||493||44|
|Michigan State Spartans||650||431||44|
Kwalick-Clark Watch List
The Kwalick-Clark Trophy has only been around for three years, but Michigan fans will know of it from Devin Funchess being awarded last year as the top tight end in the Big Ten. It's named after Dallas Clark of Iowa and Ted Kwalick of Penn State, who caught the first ever touchdown pass at Candlestick Park in 1971. The trophy name is a little unwieldy so we're going to refer to it as the KC Trophy.
Ohio State's offense last year hinged on Braxton Miller's talents with Carlos Hyde's running, and geez were they a perfect fit for each other. Braxton was hard to stop, but with some talent on defense and a dedicated effort it could be done. But then there was Hyde bowling over the linebackers, and all together it was a rough time for the Big Ten. Tom Herman had a lot of 2nd-and-3's to work with.
This season, the team down south loses four of their five starting linemen and their voracious runner. They will try to replicate some of what Carlos Hyde did successfully with Ezekiel Elliott and Bri'onte Dunn, two power runners, as well as a swarm of smaller, faster guys. Optimism is high in Columbus. They'll also be trying to break in a lot of new big uglies, and while there's talent on the roster, there are also question marks for an Ohio State fan base. The oasis of 2nd-and-3's is in jeopardy.
So, what do you do? Why, you tailor your offense more to Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. Meyer is not a real tight end-centric coach - nor is he a running back-centric one, either, as Carlos Hyde was his first 1,000-yard rusher - but he is an All-American-type coach and he has one in Jeff Heuerman. Jeff was under-used in last year's offense, but he still finished third on the team in passing with 466 at a 17.9 average. And, at 6'5", 255 lbs., he's a match-up nightmare. UFM's offense hinges on being multiple and using good, easy plays to set up the big play, and Heuerman is Meyer's ticket to that. The tight end position will also be at its most potent, as he will use them both to maintain the line of scrimmage and support the new linemen and then go out in the flat for passing plays.
A lot of casual fans will have heard of Williams already because he's not only a good tight end, he's one of a relatively few catching threats on a Gophers attack that ranked dead last in the Big Ten in passing (by 600 yards). Williams is 6'4", 254 lbs. and comes from a football family: his dad played for Minnesota and then the New York Giants for 11 years, and his grandfather was a quarterback at Notre Dame. At Minnesota, Maxx will have every opportunity to be a feature play-maker.
There's depth behind him, and the team probably won't pass too often with Mitch Leidner under center, but when it does it will be out of a lot of tight end sets and having set up the play-action pass, much like Iowa has done for the last million years. Everyone is high on Maxx Williams, but it's important to note his career-high in a game is 78 yards. He'll also see a lot of playing time with Drew Goodger and a host of others. Minnesota's offense hinges on the offensive line, and if that unit underperforms it throws a wrench in any predictions. The Gophers also have a couple receivers they hope can step up who haven't proven exactly how much they can do.
JB, as I'm going to refer to him until the end of time, is going to miss a minimum of 3-4 games with an ACL injury, but he's a very talented kid who came to Ann Arbor in great shape. However, I'm also basing this off of Devin Gardner's tendency to focus on a couple receivers that he feels comfortable with and zoning in on them. JB caught more passes last year than any receiver not named Funchess or Gallon while riding the bench for most of the first half of the season. I think he should pick things up quickly, and make his way up a crowded depth chart to find some playing time. However, 400-500 yards (which is very doable for a tight end of his abilities in seven or eight games coming off of injury) isn't going to be enough for the KC Trophy. 2015 will probably be his year.
There are a lot of other good tight ends in the Big Ten. I'm high on Jake Duzey of Iowa, and they have Ray Hamilton as well. Michigan State looks to be using its tight end position more, too, led by Josiah Price. Penn State also has some good guys who could step up in lieu of Allen Robinson's production, led by the 6'7" Jesse James.
However, I'm going to include Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, who got 573 yards last year, with one good game (6 catches and 133 yards against Arkansas) and a lot of decent ones. He's 6'6", 240 lbs., and he could be a good Big Ten player. He was the only Scarlet Knight to catch a pass in every game, and was a first-team All-Big East and honorable mention All-American by Sports Illustrated. He's not that good, and while I'd like to say that Nova will lean on his tight ends in Big Ten play, seemingly a perfect fit for Kroft, Nova seems to be a bit of a gunslinger. I'm also not high on Kroft's strength or football instincts. That said, he'll keep growing and could be a very good player.
Position-by-Position Breakdown of Special Teams
Special teams are usually the forgotten positions, but while they don't affect a game as much as the 20- or 30-man depth charts on offense and defense, they are important. Good special teams means stability; great special teams means a Tyrann Mathieu-like ability to disrupt momentum at any time.
Will Hagerup is back from a year-long suspension, but we also have experience behind him in Matt Wile. This is a very nice situation for the Maize and Blue - if you recall, Hagerup averaged 45.0 yards a punt in 2012 and won the Big Ten's Eddleman-Fields Award. Wile, meanwhile, averaged 40.6 yards a punt in 2013. The chance is there for an upgrade... but if something happens to Hagerup, we have a capable replacement with game experience. This is also relevant in case Will Hagerup struggles: in 2011, as a sophomore, the much-maligned punter averaged 36.0 yards a go despite taking nearly as many punts. There is also Kenny Allen on the depth chart, as well - a redshirt sophomore.
Kick-off return specialist
Dennis Norfleet was amazing here last year, and I believe his ceiling at this position is in the All-American category. Norfleet is never going to be a strong man, but he's got good jitterbug quickness and sees some holes in kick-off coverage before they materialize. However, Norfleet will probably not replicate his '13 season in which he took the ball out of the end zone more than anyone else in the Big Ten (40; the second-most used kick-off returner had 31), given that he'll be a more featured part of the offense.
In lieu of Norfleet, the next man up would probably be Jabrill Peppers. Hoke likes to put freshmen on special teams to give them experience, and especially puts wide receivers at the returner spot. This would be an easy transition for Peppers, given that the two main requirements are speed and instinct, and it'd be a chance for the coaches to assess his knowledge of angles and comfort with the ball. Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon are now graduated, so besides Jabrill, it would also make sense to see one of Drake Harris or Freddy Canteen. Jehu Chesson was the only other Michigan man to return kicks last year, but his 18.0 average on two attempts underwhelmed.
The red-shirt freshman Scott Sypniewski is set to take over the long snapping duties after a year under the tutelage of Jareth Glanda, who played in 37 games and was a 3-time All-Academic Big Ten. Sypniewski will hopefully spend all of the next four years holding down the position in complete anonymity.
Field goal kicker
Here, Matt Wile is the guy, after spending the last couple seasons being the long-ball kicker by trade. He is a career 5-of-8 field goal kicker, and while I know absolutely nothing of kickers' technique, I assume practice and experience will be good for him and he'll be a decent kicker. Wile will also man the extra-point duties, of which he went 5-for-5 last year. In case of emergency, again there's Kenny Allen on the depth chart, and Andrew David, a 2015 commit, will arrive on campus right after Wile graduates.
This was an area where we struggled in 2013. Michigan gave up 23.3 yards per return and 20.6% of the time, the opposing team could gain at least 30 yards on us. As the team develops depth and experience, my hope is things improve in this area. The easiest ten or twenty yards an opponent can get often happen on the kick-off return - we as fans may not think about it too much, but a team starting at their 8-yard line as opposed to their 33-yard line is a night-and-day difference and a few of those differences can decide a game.
Hitting the Links Goes Full-Blown Preview
A tradition in Columbus that started in 1990 is to jump in Mirror Lake in the week preceding the Michigan game. I won't lie, it looks like a lot of fun.
This is for 2013 only, but it'd be interesting if it was an all-time list. In fact, it'd be nice if somebody did this for the Big Ten. Hmmm...
As promised. Rutgers has a few nice pieces on their team, and I appreciate the history: they played in the first college football game ever, against Princeton in 1869.
The former walk-on Michigan kicker will now ply his trade at Mississippi State. We wish him all the best.
For clarification, the Big Ten's best offensive lineman gets the Rimington-Pace Trophy. The best center in college football gets the Rimington Trophy. Michigan is the only school to ever have two recipients of the award.
Northwestern, on offense, has been Buckeyes Lite with their obsession with multiplicity. Watching their game against OSU, athletically they were out-matched but were able to march down the field on four-yard gains because they were doing so many things that the defense couldn't key on any one.
Grrr I hope they lose a lot this year. Tight ends... just when I was celebrating Carlos Hyde leaving.
In anticipation of SB Nation's upcoming 2014 preview, relive all the excitement and potential we felt last year.
I'm still stubbornly set on spacing out the Big Ten previews for a little bit for variety if nothing else, but here's this season's Illinois one. Illinois isn't the most exciting school right now, but you can catch up on how Bill Cubit's offense will look next year and hear about how youth was holding the team back. Buckets o' fun.
Not surprisingly, I'm a lot less high on the Buckeyes' running game than E.W. is in this piece. Even if Elliott is a solid back, and he probably will be, I'd assume he'll be the weaker point of the Buckeyes offense. That's the hope anyway.
This is a mildly worthwhile link; I'm only including it because it features Michigan being talked about on ESPN.
This is a more interesting look at their top 16 teams of college football. A good round-table discussion.
The Taylor Martinez gif is gold. Also, I like how the first two pages of comments are all about food.
This happened in between his 1930 and 1931 Big Ten Championship seasons.