Football: “I’ve got to get the roster old again”: Northwestern works to balance the play of the old and new


Daily file photo by Kimberly Espinosa

Sophomore Brendan Sullivan lines up for a play. This weekend the Cats travel to face Minnesota, a very experienced bunch.

Lawrence Price, Audio Editor

Northwestern’s weekly Monday press conference seemed to be the same old, same old in the beginning. 

However, 12 minutes into the presser, Fitzgerald repeated a statement he said he made nearly two months ago after being asked about the younger Cats getting reps, and again after NU’s 33-13 loss to Iowa. 

“I’ve got to get the roster old again,” Fitzgerald said. “That means a junior-, senior-laden roster, and finding ways to get guys experience while playing the redshirt game.”

By looking back at NU’s (1-8, 1-5 Big Ten) successful seasons in the past, this reliance on experience has been the method to the madness. 

The Cats’ trip to the Big Ten championship in 2018 was led by senior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Yet, behind him in the backfield most of the time was first-year running back Isaiah Bowser — who led the team in rushing. On the opposite end, senior Montre Hartage led the Big Ten in pass breakups per game while senior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano tied for the 10th most sacks in the conference.

A major game changer to coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s defense, though, was the linebacker play, as sophomores Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher finished with the fourth and eighth most tackles in the Big Ten, respectively.

The same could be said for the Cats’ COVID-19-affected season in 2020 when they made another Big Ten championship run, offensively led by graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey and then by first-year running back Cam Porter. Without the pigskin, the defense flexed similar names in the linebacker core, including then-senior linebacker Chris Bergin. In the Sky Room, the secondary had the No. 26 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft in junior defensive back Greg Newsome II, as well as senior safety JR Pace and then-redshirt first-year Brandon Joseph — a 2021 All-American.

Now in his 17th season at the helm, Fitzgerald is staying true to his guns — “rolling with the guys that they’re rolling with” and doing everything they can to win.  

“We’re going to do everything we can to play our players that have been out there doing things consistently,” Fitzgerald said. “You sprinkle in guys where it seems right, where it fits, to get them in the arena, get them some experience.”

Fitzgerald added that the Cats will continue to drive competition between some players, especially now that they have full access to their roster. And it’s clear this agenda has been pushed up to this point in the season. 

This has been pertinent in the secondary — a group that has faced injuries throughout the room all year. Some of the names being called include sophomore defensive back Theran Johnson, who has seen action since the Duke contest, and first-year defensive back Devin Turner, seeing the field since No. 11 Penn State. Both played major snaps versus No. 2 Ohio State last week.  

However, even with the opportunity to play younger Cats — which could jumpstart more polished, trustworthy college careers for fresh players — the strategy can come with high risk. This was showcased against No. 2 Ohio State in the fourth quarter, where quarterback C.J. Stroud scrambled for 44 yards to NU’s five-yard line due to a less-experienced player’s defensive breakdown. 

Junior defensive back Rod Heard II said it’s essential to be a supporting hand for the younger players as they begin their college careers on a bigger stage and playing time.

“Make sure that, you know, when they are out there that they feel comfortable, that their, you know, confident” Heard II said. “Talking to them, giving them guidance on our past experiences and the things that hurt us in the past, and giving them little tips and things like that.”

Heard II emphasized the importance of building belief in themselves, and how well the younger players — who have seen their role expand quickly — have played. Being a captain and one of NU’s wisest players in his sixth year of college play, graduate running back Andrew Clair echoed the importance of passing the torch, mentally and physically. 

“Just giving them help each and every play goes a long way,” Clair said. “Being able to try to help them expand their individual game, their individual package, is real important.” 

Traveling to Minnesota this weekend to face the Golden Gophers (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten), the Cats will face an experienced bunch on the offensive and defensive end — running back Mohamed Ibrahim (sixth-season), quarterback Tanner Morgan (sixth-season) and linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin (fifth-season). 

Yet, even against these dynamics and odds, the Cats have faith that this could be the week they snap their losing streak.

“I think a lesser-character group of guys with our record wouldn’t show up everyday with lunch pails and hard hats on to get better,” Fitzgerald. “I believe in our guys, I believe they are going to do everything they can to win this game and prepare the right way.”