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Practice Notebook: Cats concentrating on bowl win goal

Danny Daly

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It’s no secret that the Wildcats are eager to win a bowl game – it’s one of the program’s main values. After five weeks of preparation, only a walk-through on Thursday separates Northwestern from the chance to achieve that goal against Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl.

“From a physical standpoint, our guys have worked very hard over the course of this last month,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’ve had a plan, our guys bought into the plan, and now it’s a 48-hour business trip.”

With a victory over the Tigers, the Cats would capture only the second bowl title in school history – the first since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Plus, the senior class was the last one to play for late coach Randy Walker, and a win in the Outback Bowl would honor his memory.

The possibility of those accomplishments has helped NU concentrate on doing everything necessary to get ready for Auburn.

“Our guys are really focused and driven, and when you’ve got an opportunity to leave a legacy like we have, the coach doesn’t have to do a whole lot,” Fitzgerald said.

In fact, the coaching staff has had more difficulty curbing the Cats’ intensity than trying to motivate them.

“A lot of times, I have to settle them down,” Fitzgerald said. “We got to the middle point of practices up in Evanston, and it started to get a little heated and a little frisky. We backed it down a little bit, we ramped the fun up a little bit more.”

The timing of the decision worked out well for the Cats. Soon after practices became more relaxed, the team entered a week of light-hearted activities that included a trip to the Blackhawks game, an all-you-can-eat buffet of food from bowl sponsor Outback Steakhouse and Wednesday’s afternoon gathering at Clearwater Beach.

DUNGY DROPS BY BEFORE PRACTICE

In addition to the numerous laid-back events, two prominent figures took the time to speak to the Cats in the days leading up to the game. After Illinois governor Pat Quinn visited an NU practice in Evanston earlier this month, former NFL coach Tony Dungy spoke to both Outback Bowl participants Wednesday morning.

“What an unbelievable opportunity to have coach Dungy share his wisdom,” Fitzgerald said. “I wish every young man could have that opportunity.”

Dungy spent 13 years guiding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts, winning a Super Bowl with the latter in 2007. He retired after last season and has mentored troubled athletes like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount while also serving as a studio analyst for NBC.

What Dungy said to the two teams was similar to what NU’s coaches advocate.

“That’s the message we send to our players – it’s about life, it’s about developing to be prepared for life,” Fitzgerald said. “And you have to respect and cherish the opportunities that come along with it. Coach’s message was right on, and one that I’ll always remember. I know our players will, too.”

WISCONSIN’S WIN JUMPSTARTS CONFERENCE

The Big Ten’s 1-6 bowl record last season drew national ridicule, making this year important for restoring its reputation. No. 25 Wisconsin gave the Big Ten some early momentum by upsetting No. 15 Miami 20-14 in the Champ Sports Bowl, riding a power running game led by sophomore John Clay to defeat a more athletic opponent.

It was a matchup that other coaches kept a close eye on, pulling for their rival to come through and boost the conference’s prestige.

“I’m a (former) Big Ten student athlete, a Northwestern graduate, and there’s nothing I take more pride in than our conference,” Fitzgerald said. “I texted (Wisconsin coach) Bret (Bielema) this morning and congratulated him. It was a great way to get things started. …I made sure that I watched that game.”

Wisconsin played in the first of the Big Ten’s seven bowls this postseason, with Minnesota taking on Iowa State in Thursday night’s Insight Bowl followed by three games on Jan. 1 featuring conference champion Ohio State.

danieldaly2012@u.northwestern.edu

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