Football: Who holds the edge in the third matchup between Pat Fitzgerald and Jim Harbaugh?

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Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Coach Pat Fitzgerald roams the sidelines during the Wildcats’ Sept. 11 game against Indiana State. This weekend, Fitzgerald will face off against Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh for the third time.

John Riker, Sports Editor


Football


Northwestern’s matchup against No. 6 Michigan may look lopsided on paper. One team holds a 6-0 record and a top ten ranking while the other lost to 3-5 Nebraska by seven touchdowns three weeks ago, 56-7.

But the coaching matchup is worth a closer look.

On one sideline, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald has reinvented NU in his time at the helm, winning two Big Ten West titles in the past three seasons. Opposite him is the Wolverines’ Jim Harbaugh, whose alma mater is off to its best start since 2016 and a Super Bowl appearance on his resume.

“This is the best team we’re facing all year, and it’s not even close,” Fitzgerald said. “This will be a huge challenge.”

Here’s how the two coaches compare ahead of their third matchup.

Experience

The two coaches share similar paths: college glory as a player and a return home to coach their respective alma mater. Both also tested their talents on the pro level. Fitzgerald saw preseason action at linebacker on the Dallas Cowboys in 1997 and Harbaugh was the Chicago Bears’ starting quarterback for seven seasons.

Now in his 16th season, Fitzgerald has been the face of Cats football for almost two decades. He’s transformed a program that had last won a bowl in 1949 upon his arrival into annual division contenders.

Harbaugh took a Stanford football program with a similar profile to NU — a school with elite academics playing in a Power Five conference — and led the Cardinal to an Orange Bowl win and No. 4 ranking in 2010. Michigan turned to Harbaugh in 2015 to return the Wolverines to national prominence, yet his 0-5 record against Ohio State and six-year bowl victory drought have brewed frustrations in Ann Arbor.

Both coaches should be around for a while, too. Fitzgerald signed a 10-year extension in January, and Harbaugh received an extension that should keep him at Michigan until 2025.

Head-to-head matchups

Michigan leads the all-time rivalry between the two Big Ten schools 58-15-2, and the domination has only continued with Harbaugh in charge.

In Harbaugh’s first season in 2015, the No. 18 Wolverines shut out the No. 13 Wildcats 38-0 in Ann Arbor. Three seasons later, a No. 14 Michigan squad staved off NU at Ryan Field, 20-17.

Overall success

Recently, Fitzgerald has had the upper hand. His Cats squads have reached the Big Ten Championship twice while Harbaugh has yet to lead the Wolverines to Indianapolis, and he’s won five bowl games to Harbaugh’s one. Fitzgerald also took home the Big Ten Coach of the Year award in 2018.

The regular season comparison gives a slight edge to the coach up north. Since Harbaugh’s arrival at Michigan in 2015, the Wolverines are 55-22 in the more top-heavy Big Ten East division as compared to the Cats’ 49-31 mark.

Recruiting

This category turns pretty convincingly in Harbaugh’s favor. The former San Francisco 49ers coach has attracted six five-star prospects to Ann Arbor — that’s six more than NU has scored in program history. Give credit to Fitzgerald and the Cats for their success in player development, but as should be expected with a prestigious program like Michigan, the Wolverines have a clear edge in bringing in the best athletes.

One recent point does help the Cats’ case: their successful recruitment of sophomore offensive lineman Peter Skoronski. The standout left tackle entertained offers from Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin as a four-star recruit in the class of 2020 but ultimately chose to continue his football career in Evanston, where he earned All-Big Ten honors last season.

What’s at stake

NU is looking to win its first game against Michigan since 2008, but that drought isn’t on Fitzgerald’s mind.

“I’m more focused on us trying to get a first down and get a stop,” Fitzgerald said. “The big picture stuff is great for you all to talk about.”

Still, a win in the Big House against a top ten team would be a statement victory for his Cats and would provide another example of NU’s penchant for playing above their weight against established programs. For Michigan and Harbaugh, Saturday presents an opportunity to gain momentum before next week’s in-state test against No. 9 Michigan State and prove that this could be their year to shine.

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Twitter: @john__riker

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