Football Notebook: Pat Fitzgerald offers creative solution to linebacker conundrum


Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Pat Fitzgerald coaches from the sideline. Fitzgerald this week defended a controversial option play-call on fourth-and-three against Penn State.

Cole Paxton, Copy Chief


With Northwestern possibly set to play the first half Saturday at Maryland without its top two options at middle linebacker, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald posited the perfect replacement.


“I’ve got a redshirt year left, so I’m going to wear (number) 51 this week,” Fitzgerald joked Monday. “I’ll be gassed by about the second series. So we’ll figure it out after that.”

A two-time All-American middle linebacker in 1995 and 1996, Fitzgerald tallied nearly 300 tackles and helped lead NU to the 1996 Rose Bowl while wearing the 51 jersey. He has not, however, played in a college game since New Year’s Day in 1997.

This season’s regular starter, Paddy Fisher, will miss the first half against the Terrapins following his ejection for targeting in the second half a week ago against Penn State. His backup, sophomore Nathan Fox, has missed NU’s last two games with injury but is not listed on the injury report this week.

Fisher will return for the second half, but the Cats have no clear option for the first half. Senior Brett Walsh is a natural outside linebacker who shifted inside after Fisher’s ejection, and true freshman Blake Gallagher, who has appeared on the depth chart on the outside, could get his first career start.

Walsh and junior safety Jared McGee both said even an untested, out-of-position current player would fare better than Fitzgerald.

“It’s a different game now,” Walsh said. “He’s one of the greatest of all-time, but we always joke  he didn’t have to play any spread teams.”

McGee granted that his coach might help in one area.

“It would be nice to have (him) in there for the run game,” McGee said. “Pass dropping … you don’t know about that.”

On speed option, Fitzgerald lambastes offensive line

NU took significant criticism for a failed fourth-down option play against Penn State, but the coach defended the play call and unloaded on his offensive line for the failure this week.

Facing fourth-and-three at the Nittany Lions’ 33-yard line, the Cats called a speed option, a play in which junior quarterback Clayton Thorson rolls out and either keeps the ball or pitches it to the running back.

Penn State had several unblocked defenders, dooming the play and leaving fans to gripe over the play call, a frequent choice of much-maligned offensive coordinator Mick McCall.

But Fitzgerald, who defended the call postgame, reiterated that it was an excellent one.

“That option play should’ve been a touchdown,” Fitzgerald said Monday. “If we would’ve blocked the guy that wasn’t the hardest block on the play, (people would say) ‘Wow, that was a great call.’”

Fitzgerald excited for ‘homecoming’ trip to Maryland

When Fitzgerald’s playing career ended, he transitioned almost immediately to coaching. His first stop was Maryland, where he served as a graduate assistant in 1998.

Saturday’s game marks his first return to College Park for a game since that season, and he called the upcoming voyage “a little bit of a homecoming.”

“I’m looking forward to kind of going back,” Fitzgerald said. “When you have the privilege as a coach to be at (Maryland), it’s always going to be a part of you.”

The contest is the first-ever between the Cats and the Terrapins, who joined the Big Ten in 2014.

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