Football: Northwestern makes Holiday Bowl statement, then Pat Fitzgerald makes his


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Pat Fitzgerald raises the Holiday Bowl trophy in celebration in 2018. Fitzgerald recently reached his 100th win with the Cats.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


SAN DIEGO — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald stood in pouring rain here, the victor of a game his team once trailed by 17 points, his third bowl win in as many years at a program that had previously won only two in its history. He was living a real-life juxtaposition.

The coach then delivered eight words that may have even more significance to this Wildcats program than Monday’s stirring Holiday Bowl win.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “This is home forever.”

Rumors that the Green Bay Packers are interested in Fitzgerald to become their next head coach have swirled for weeks, and even though the 13-year-and-counting NU boss has rebuked inquiries from blue-blood college programs like USC and Michigan in the past, the NFL talk was still worrisome. But Fitzgerald, the unanimous 2018 Big Ten Coach of the Year, made it clear this New Year’s Eve that he’s an Evanstonian for good.

Of course, the actual football played at SDCCU Stadium was one of Fitzgerald’s finest career coaching performances by any measurement, not to be overshadowed by speculation about his personal future.

His No. 22 NU squad, (9-5, 8-1 Big Ten) missing its best two receivers and three of its most experienced defenders, rallied from a 20-3 halftime deficit by scoring four consecutive touchdowns within the next 14 minutes. No. 17 Utah (9-5, 6-3 Pac-12) coach Kyle Whittingham, previously 11-1 in bowl games, called the third quarter turnaround a “nightmare.” For the Cats, it was more like a trip to heaven.

The difference in confidence and mood on the two sidelines was palpable and obvious, as NU came out swinging while Utah looked rattled by the turn in momentum. The Cats shifted defensive strategies, backing off the line and loading up the secondary, and moved to a more straightforward offensive game plan with some trick plays mixed in.

“We just weren’t communicating great early — no reason, just a little rusty from not having played in a month — but we settled in and we settled down,” Fitzgerald said. “A little bit more downhill runs, that was (adjustment) number one. We felt like we had to get them running a little bit side-to-side, they were so stout in the belly of their defense, but that really didn’t work very well for us in the first half. … And then (we added) a couple double moves, and a couple big plays down the stretch that played dividends.”

Fitzgerald helped guide NU through a most tumultuous of autumns in 2018, overcoming a 1-3 start and the sudden loss of running back Jeremy Larkin by marching to the Big Ten Championship for the first time in school history and then beating a heavily favored opponent in an upper-tier bowl. The absurdity of all that transpired Monday night, from the horrendous weather to the six defensive takeaways, was just par for the course.

As was the happy ending, for all involved. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson brushed off a late injury scare, and will head off to the NFL on a high note. Fitzgerald brushed off a game that threatened to take the glint off a sparklingly well-run season, and will not head off to the NFL after all.

“I’ve been pretty steadfast with my feelings and how I felt, and (the University and I) have made long-term commitments to each other now,” the coach said. “We’ve got miles to go, we’re far from the finished product as a program, and that’s my job.”

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