Football: Wildcats banking on coming off the bye well rested as they host Penn State


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Anthony Walker returns an interception against Penn State. The sophomore linebacker had a breakout game against the Nittany Lions last season.

Huzaifa Patel, Reporter


Coming off of a bye week, it is difficult to project how a team will respond. Will it be well-rested and fundamentally sound, or will there be rust? Northwestern is hoping for the former.

And with four games remaining, the Wildcats have a lot left to play for in the Big Ten.

“People think you might lose momentum,” senior superback Dan Vitale said regarding the bye week. “But everyone seemed pretty excited to be here today. I think we’re ready to hit the ground running again.”

These final four games will be especially important to seniors like Vitale, who are closing out their NU careers. Vitale said the younger players on the team have bought in, upping their effort level and urgency for the seniors.

“One thing I remember I talked about at the end of camp is, you never know when your career is going to end,” Vitale said. “It could end short of the four games we have left. The goal we’ve had pretty much since Game One is to play every single game like it’s your last.”

The future looks bright for the senior’s football career, but Vitale said he is focused only on the present with Northwestern.

Likewise, Coach Pat Fitzgerald was laser-focused on Saturday’s matchup against Penn State. Led by junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a formidable defensive line, the Nittany Lions present an interesting challenge to the Cats.

NU’s defense was extremely successful against Hackenberg in last year’s matchup in University Park, Pennsylvania, overwhelming the Nittany Lion offensive line to the tune of four sacks and an interception. It has been dubbed the “Anthony Walker game” by some in reference to the sophomore linebacker’s breakout performance in what was his first start as a Wildcat.

But Fitzgerald isn’t thinking about last year’s success, instead lauding Hackenberg’s play in 2015. While praising the opposing team is a staple of every coach’s press conferences, Fitzgerald was particularly complimentary of Hackenberg.

“Hackenberg is one of the best, if not the best quarterback in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “(He’s) a first-round talent.”

Fitzgerald also emphasized Hackenberg’s weapons, saying he expects to see six to 10 deep shots down the field.

Penn State has burned opponents who have keyed in on the run recently, with Hackenberg throwing for 581 yards and five touchdowns in the past two weeks.

“They have some guys that can catch the ball and make big plays,” senior defensive end Deonte Gibson said, specifically naming wide receivers Geno Lewis, Chris Godwin and the “reliable” DaeSean Hamilton.

Consequently, it bodes well for the Wildcat secondary that Fitzgerald said junior cornerback Matthew Harris is expected to play this weekend. However, senior defensive tackle C.J. Robbins is day-to-day with freshman Jordan Thompson, replacing him on the depth chart as a starter at defensive tackle.

In that vein, the bye week has been well-timed for the Cats in terms of recharging the team physically, and Fitzgerald believes it has helped mentally as well.

“It depends on when you have it. It depends on who and how you’re playing,” Fitzgerald said. “From a standpoint of who we’ve played to this point, the challenges that we’ve had, we needed a little bit of a break mentally.”

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