After Northwestern’s upset win at Minnesota, coach Pat Fitzgerald hummed a Jimmy Buffett tune as he walked away from his postgame news conference.
He should have been singing a Willie Nelson ditty that goes: “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again.”
The Wildcats (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) have made the road their home away from home this season, racking up key victories in hostile environments throughout the year. This week, they travel to Michigan (3-7, 2-4) hoping to cement their best road record in a single season in 13 years.
“We’re a pretty mature and focused team, and we’ve played well on the road this year,” Fitzgerald said.
From an early-season win at Duke to Big Ten triumphs at Iowa and Minnesota, NU has zoned out crowd noise to pulled out close victories.
Fitzgerald’s squad has been either tied or behind in the fourth quarter in all three of its road victories. The Cats made key plays to secure the wins, coming up with a goal-line stand against the Hawkeyes, a late touchdown against the Blue Devils, and an interception return for a touchdown in the final minute against the Gophers.
“I think it has a lot to do with maturity,” senior quarterback and team captain C.J. Bachér said. “You go into these hostile environments in the Big Ten, like Iowa, and you need to be able to put that out of your mind and focus on doing your job.”
The Cats have already surpassed their road victory totals from 2007 and 2006. If they beat Michigan, they will finish the season with a 4-1 record away from Ryan Field, the best mark since a 5-0 road record in the 1995 Rose Bowl season.
That year, NU beat Michigan on the road, 19-13, the only time since 1965 the Cats have won at The Big House. Fitzgerald, who had 18 tackles in that game, has kept his players focused on road trips this season from the moment they get on the bus.
“Sometimes the road makes you focus a little bit more,” he said. “We get going at 10 a.m. when we leave for Michigan, and we don’t get together until 3 or 3:30 p.m. for home games. So maybe that has a little to do with it.”
The Cats will come into the Big House looking to beat the Wolverines for just the third time in the last 43 years and the first since a 54-51 win in 2000. After Michigan held a potent Minnesota offense to just 188 total yards in a 29-6 victory last weekend, scoring 54 points again seems highly unlikely for NU.
“Their front four is really talented,” Bachér said. “Our offensive line is definitely going to have a challenge ahead of them.”
Whether Bachér will lead the offense come Saturday remains a mystery. Both he and backup Mike Kafka were listed as possible starters on the team’s weekly depth chart. Bachér was upgraded to probable in Thursday‘s team injury report.
Either quarterback will face the jeers of 100,000-plus blue-and-maize clad fans as the Cats hit the road one last time in the regular season.
“It’s definitely a test any time we go play in Ann Arbor,” Bachér said. “We’ll have our hands full, but I think we’ll be ready to go.”