Big Ten Preview: Pat Fitzgerald builds a house

Ryan Field

Northwestern fans will be painting a new stadium purple soon. (Photo courtesy: USA Today Sports)

Three of the four largest college football stadiums in the nation are home to Big Ten schools: Michigan Stadium (109,901), Beaver Stadium at Penn State (107,282) and Ohio Stadium (102,329). Contrast those with quaint Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., the conference’s tiniest stadium. Northwestern University’s home seats just 47,000-plus (half of them, it seems, members of the working media who also happen to be alums). An entire area behind one end zone has no fan seating, which puts the Wildcats behind some Texas high schools.

In fact, even though Northwestern won 10 games last season for just the third time in school history (the magical Rose Bowl season of 1995 and before that, in 1903, when the 10-1-3 Wildcats took down both Chicago Dental and the Northwestern Alumni), it only filled Ryan Field to 75 percent capacity. Average attendance was 35,697.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s program finished just 65th in the nation in attendance.

But this is what matters: The Wildcats finished 16th in the final USA Today poll.

Fitzgerald, who anchored the defense of the only Northwestern squad to finish a season with a higher ranking (7th in the USA Today rankings in ’95), is firmly entrenched at his alma mater. Only 38 years old, Fitz is already the second-longest tenured coach in the B1G, behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, as he enters his eighth season. He has already exorcised the Wildcats’ bowl drought of 64 seasons, thanks to a Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State on New Year’s Day of this year.

Clearly, Fitz is building this program, steadily, and taking it to places that it has never been. Another upper-tier bowl season is expected of the Cats this year. Why?

First of all, Venric Mark returns (does he ever). The senior-to-be was a first-team All-American punt returner in 2012 while also racking up the quietest 1,366-rushing yards season (105.08 per game) in memory.

Quarterback Kain Colter is also back in Northwestern’s backfield. Last season Colter attempted more rushes (170) than passes (149), but he also led the B1G’s third-most potent scoring offense behind only Ohio State, which went undefeated, and Nebraska. As many as eight starters and all of the skill position players should return for an offense that averaged nearly 32 points per game last autumn.

Defensively, seven starters return, including the Wildcats’ leading tackler, linebacker Damien Proby (112 stops) and its leader in sacks, defensive end Tyler Scott (9, all solo). Defense remains an adventure for this program, though. Anyone who watched Northwestern allow 22 fourth-quarter points at Penn State last October 6 and cough up an 11-point lead knows that.

If you are still of the mindset that Northwestern is a nice little program whose main contribution to the B1G is to boost its APR, wake up. The Cats are beyond Vanderbilt, if still behind Stanford. This is a program that led in the fourth quarter of every single contest it played in 2012, including losses in Happy Valley and Ann Arbor. The Wolverines beat them in overtime and the Cats’ third loss, at home to Nebraska at intimate Ryan Field, was by one point.

Last year Fitzgerald advanced his program beyond the bowl curse. This year the goal should be to win the games that are winnable in the final six minutes. And after that?

Well, there was no Yankee Stadium before Babe Ruth and there was no Notre Dame Stadium before Knute Rockne. Someday Northwestern will play in a venue that, while it may seat shy of six figures worth of humanity, will at least have stands behind both goal posts. Whatever the official name of such an edifice will be, locals will likely dub it “The House That Fitz Built.”