Walfish: Northwestern ready to face heat in Big Ten kitchen

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Josh Walfish, Sports Editor

If there were a time for the Wildcats to silence their critics, it would be 2013.

Northwestern has a legitimate shot to start off the football season 4-0 before squaring off with The Ohio State, and please put emphasis on “the.” For those of you who claim the Cats have accomplished the feat before, I ask you to look at the schedule.

After Monday’s announcement of the Big Ten Network’s prime-time games, three of NU’s first five games will be played under the lights at Ryan Field in front of 47,000 screaming fans and a national audience. The nation will be watching the Cats, and it is time NU rose to the occasion under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Everyone in that locker room will tell you they are ready to handle the expectations and prove the Cats will be a threat in the Big Ten for years to come. The issue is we have heard the same thing before from NU.

In 2001, the Cats were predicted to win the Big Ten. I know this may come as a shock to many readers who thought NU was irrelevant before Fitzgerald was named the coach and excluding the Rose Bowl season in 1995. In 2001, NU was coming off being named co-conference champions in 2000 and returned many seniors. However, NU finished 4-7 and only won two Big Ten games, missing the postseason entirely, let alone winning one of the most competitive conferences in the country.

I tell you about the past because it is exactly that — the past. Something about this year’s team is different, and it has direct correlation to the past. That connection, of course, is this team has defied the past once and is out to rebel against it again.

The hallmark of Fitzgerald’s tenure as coach is the fact that he has confronted NU’s past failures and used them to motivate his team to take the program to new levels. By winning 10 games last year, this team has done exactly that, matching the most wins in a season in program history.

Fitzgerald has done an admirable job of leading the Cats over every obstacle they have faced. The past is no longer an issue, and I’m sure he is upset with me for even bringing up the 2001 season. However, it is an important comparison. Despite winning Big Ten titles in 1995, 1996 and 2000, NU was not ready for the limelight. It was not ready to be the hunted and could only play the hunter.

The 2013 team has embraced being the hunted and not the hunter. The Cats have learned how to be the favorite and live up to those expectations. They have figured out how to play with the heavy burden that is a preseason ranking.

So when all the eyes are on Evanston and NU is forced to show its mettle, how will the Cats respond? If NU’s walk matches its talk, the Buckeyes should be in for a dogfight because the Cats will be ready to play and prove once and for all, NU is ready to contend at the top of the Big Ten for decades to come.