Gameday: Staying cool under pressure

Colin Becht

It has been called the 12th Man, capable crushing even the toughest of foes. Its effect is so well-renowned that experienced gamblers know to proceed with caution when picking against it.

However, while the mystical force that is home field advantage has been powerful enough to bring down the nation’s elite programs such as Alabama and Ohio State, Northwestern seems strangely immune.

In fact, under coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats have been better on the road than at home. In the five years Fitzgerald has coached at NU, the Cats are 18-13 at home and 15-10 on the road, a greater win percentage by nearly 10 percent. NU currently maintains a six-game road winning streak, the school’s longest since 1931, and has won a Big Ten-best 11 road games over the past three seasons.

“We’re pretty confident on the road,” junior quarterback Dan Persa said. “We have a good attitude, and we’re used to it. We’re used to an us-against-the-world mentality.”

The Cats are so unfazed by a road contest that junior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert said he actually prefers away games.

“I like playing on the road a little bit better,” he said. “I just stay a little bit more focused. There’s not as many distractions.”

This season, so far, has been NU’s greatest performance away from Ryan Field during the Fitzgerald era, though they haven’t faced the toughest competition. The Cats are 4-0 with wins at Vanderbilt, Rice, Minnesota and Indiana, while they have split their four home contests.

“We try to keep things similar between road and home,” Fitzgerald said. “One common thread is we’ve done well in the turnover ratio. That’s critically important in any game but especially on the road.”

Another aspect that may aid the Cats on the road, Fitzgerald said, is the added preparation time. For home games, the players report to the coaching staff at around 4 p.m. on Fridays, while before away games, the players report at 10 a.m. Fridays.

“They go to class for our home games while our road games, we leave earlier,” Fitzgerald said. “We have them for 48 hours.”

While having to travel to away games might seem like a burden, Fitzgerald said the team’s travel accommodations are fairly lavish.

“It’s unbelievable how much food they get,” he said. “We have breakfast, go through our Friday script, then load up the buses and our charter spoils us rotten. Most of them just relax. We travel first class, so it’s nice.”

Crowd control

With the Cats’ recent wave of success on the road, it’s no surprise they don’t give much importance to home field advantage.

“I don’t really think it matters that much because it’s the attitude that you come into the game with (that’s more important),” senior linebacker Quentin Davie said. “Whoever’s attitude and will to win is more, they’re going to take the game.”

Fitzgerald said playing against an opponent’s home field advantage simply gives the visiting team added motivation to prepare for the game.

“Certain environments are going to be a little louder so you’ve got to have a little better focus,” he said. “Sometimes when you have to go into those environments, maybe it forces you to have that much better of a practice during the week.”

Even when home field advantage falls on the Cats’ side, Ebert said it’s not a big factor in the game.

“I don’t really pay too much attention,” he said. “You kind of just have to focus on the game and not too much the stands.”

NU’s ability to do exactly that is what Persa said sparks the Cats’ road success.

“That’s why we’re so good on the road, because we don’t really focus on what’s around us at home or away,” he said.

Busy Beaver

With NU set to travel to Happy Valley to take on Penn State in the 107,282-seat behemoth known as Beaver Stadium, there’s little concern from the Cats that crowd will be a problem.

“There’s definitely going to be a lot of distraction going on, on Saturday, but the coaches always have us in a good mindset, just focused, just doing what we have to do,” junior cornerback Jordan Mabin said.

In preparation for the noise, the offense has worked on some adjustments, namely switching to silent signals for audibles.

“We’ve used silent a lot,” Persa said. “We haven’t done it this year at all, but we used it in camp and it wasn’t a problem. It just changes a few things. It makes you focus on communication and making sure everybody gets the calls.”

To simulate the environment, the offense has spent the week practicing with piped-in sounds from Penn State games through an on-field speaker. While Persa and the first-team offense ran through plays this week, they had to deal with the Penn State fan favorite chant “Zombie Nation” mixedwith a little “We Are Penn State.”

“We’ve got the music here during practice, so hopefully it won’t be too big of a deal (during the game),” Ebert said.

Although the Cats practiced with just one speaker as opposed to more than 100,000 fans, Ebert said it still does a decent job of replicating a live crowd “because it’s right in your back ear.”

Though the crowd noise may pose some complications, Mabin said he’s looking forward to dealing with the crowd.

“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “It’s my first time playing there. There’s going to be a lot of fans there, and I’m excited. I can’t wait.”

Once upon a time in Happy Valley

Mabin’s not the only Beaver Stadium newbie on the team. In fact, only wide receiver Lee Coleman and kicker Stefan Demos, both seniors, made the trip to State College the last time the Cats played there on Sept. 30, 2006.

“It was really loud,” Demos said. “It’s really similar to Iowa, really similar to Camp Randall (Wisconsin), really similar to the ‘Shoe (Ohio State), the Big House (Michigan). They’re all loud.”

While a kicker lining up for a field goal certainly has to deal with the full force of that crowd noise, Demos said he enjoys it.

“I prefer noise; I prefer playing on the road,” he said. “For me it’s easier. The louder it is, the more you find yourself focusing on what you’re supposed to do.”

And even if the noise proves disruptive, Demos said there’s a simple solution for that.

“It’s pretty easy to take a crowd out of a game,” he said. “But it’s really easy to keep the crowd in the game.”

While Fitzgerald admitted Penn State’s crowd noise presents a challenge, he said it simply comes with the conference.

“Their fans are great. It’ll be a hostile environment,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s why you come to play college football in the Big Ten.

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