Football: Northwestern enters Top 25, Fitzgerald downplays importance

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Football: Northwestern enters Top 25, Fitzgerald downplays importance

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald surveys the field during Northwestern's 41-0 win over Eastern Illinois on Saturday. The dominant win pushed the Wildcats into the top 25 in both national polls.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald surveys the field during Northwestern's 41-0 win over Eastern Illinois on Saturday. The dominant win pushed the Wildcats into the top 25 in both national polls.

Zachary Laurence/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald surveys the field during Northwestern's 41-0 win over Eastern Illinois on Saturday. The dominant win pushed the Wildcats into the top 25 in both national polls.

Zachary Laurence/The Daily Northwestern

Zachary Laurence/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald surveys the field during Northwestern's 41-0 win over Eastern Illinois on Saturday. The dominant win pushed the Wildcats into the top 25 in both national polls.

Alex Putterman, Web Editor

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Two weeks ago, Northwestern looked like a borderline-.500 team and Big Ten West afterthought. Now, the Wildcats are one of the top 25 teams in the country according to both the Associated Press (which has them 23rd) and the Coaches Poll (24th).

But coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t want his players paying any attention.

“Three weeks ago I think the only thing written about them was negative,” Fitzgerald said Monday. “I asked them not to focus on those distractions, and I’d ask them to do the same thing (now).”

The last time the Cats were ranked, in October 2013, they were coming off a disappointing (but impressive) loss to Ohio State. The next week, NU lost 35-6 to Wisconsin to fall out of the Top 25. Now, following a 16-6 win over No. 21 Stanford and a 41-0 rout of Eastern Illinois to start the season, the Cats are back.

“Quite frankly, I expect to be ranked,” Fitzgerald said. “I expect our team to compete for championships. So it’s not a surprise to me.”

With a big game coming Saturday at Duke, NU’s players followed Fitzgerald’s lead in downplaying the new ranking.

“It feels good to be ranked, but it really doesn’t matter a lot,” senior cornerback Nick VanHoose said. “We don’t really look at the ranking.”

Sophomore running back Justin Jackson also stuck to the script.

“Before the season no one said anything about us, now everyone’s saying we’re good,” Jackson said. “It just comes down to how we feel about us. It’s not about how the media feels about us.”

Offensive line remains in flux

The offensive line depth chart has been fluid since the start of the season, largely thanks to injuries. Junior Connor Mahoney, who first arrived in Evanston as a defensive tackle, is now listed as the starter at left guard, and junior Ian Park gets the nod at center. Fitzgerald said Adam DePietro, who exited Saturday’s game with an injury, is out for the near future but everyone else on the line will practice this week.

Center Brad North struggled snapping the ball against Stanford and then missed the Eastern Illinois game with an injury. Now he’s healthy but is listed as the back-up on NU’s depth chart. Fitzgerald reiterated his displeasure with North’s snapping and said he’ll determine whether the sophomore will regain his starting spot later in the week.

Praise for Duke

Fitzgerald commended Duke coach David Cutcliffe, under whom the Blue Devils are 21-8 since 2013 after 18 straight seasons below .500: “(Their success) starts with David. Coach Cut is number one a terrific person, he’s an outstanding football coach, and he’s got a plan.”

Fitzgerald stressed that Duke will pose a serious challenge for NU, calling the Blue Devils “the fastest team we’ve played yet this year.”

Email: asputt@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AlexPutterman

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