Football: Northwestern looks to rewrite October script

Daily file photo by Mackenzie McCluer

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald watches from the sideline during a game last season. On Wednesday, he told reporters he is not worried about living up to the growing expectations for the Wildcats this season.

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

Pat Fitzgerald only has a losing record in one month of the regular season: October.

The Northwestern football coach is 10-15 in the 10th month of the year and 36-17 in the other three months of the regular season. Only twice has Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) had a winning record in the month of October in Fitzgerald’s seven years at the helm, 2007 and 2009. Fitzgerald knows about the Wildcats’ struggles in October, which is why he started talking to the team about the month’s curse during spring practices and devoted two hours to it during a staff retreat in the offseason.

“October’s our month,” Fitzgerald said. “We talked about it in the offseason. We talked about a plan of time managing better, of making sure we get done what we need to get done when we need to get it done, being professional in how we approach it and really challenging our leaders to get the guys in and not let the NCAA hold them back.”

The NCAA limits coaches to 20 hours per week of practice with their student athletes, so many players use free time to watch film, lift weights or practice with each other. When school is not in session, student athletes have an easier time finding ways to fit in the extra preparation.

None of that matters to Fitzgerald, who said he is taking a no-excuses approach to the month and expects all of his players to bring their A-game. As school gets into full swing for the Cats this week, the players and Fitzgerald stress, it can’t be a crutch for not doing any football-related tasks during free time.

“There’s really no excuse,” senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “It’s our job as the older guys to make sure the younger guys come along faster once school starts. Make sure they understand football is still a commitment too and you have to spend just as much time in the film room and the weight room once school starts as you were before to keep improving.”

The commitment extends beyond football and may force student athletes to sacrifice some shut eye to make sure they are prepared for Saturday’s game.

“There’s always a time for football, but then there’s also a time for school,” junior running back Venric Mark said. “Coming into this month, make sure you come in early sometimes or you might have to lose a little bit of sleep and come in late to watch the film.”

NU heads into October undefeated for the third time under Fitzgerald, but did not have a winning month either of those two other seasons.  The Cats have won their first game in October in half of Fitzgerald’s six seasons at NU, which coincide with the three non-losing Octobers in Fitzgerald’s tenure. The coach said he is not going to go easy on the Cats in October because the expectations are higher than they’ve been in the past.

“I’m going to be really demanding on them this month,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not going to tolerate the past. Our expectations collectively as a program have risen and we’ve got to be much better in this month if we’re going to achieve the goals we have for ourselves.”

As the Cats march into October, they will be without senior defensive lineman Roderick Goodlow and freshman defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, both of whom are out for the season with injuries. Fitzgerald said Odenigbo will apply for a medical redshirt and should receive the exemption from the NCAA because he has played in less than 25 percent of the team’s games this season. The freshman only saw limited action against Vanderbilt on Sept. 8 and should have all four years of eligibility remaining next season.

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