By Adam Hoge-
EVANSTON (CBS) To Northwestern fans frustrated with Pat Fitzgerald, I present to you the 2012 Illinois Fighting Illini.
One quarter. Five penalties. Three of them on the Illinois coaching staff.
Saturday’s 50-14 win for Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) over the Illini (2-10, 0-8 Big Ten) represented much more than just another clash between Chicago’s Big Ten team and Illinois’ state team.
It represented two programs going into two opposite directions.
One team is headed to its fifth straight bowl game. The other is carrying a 14-game Big Ten losing streak into next season.
It’s reasonable for Northwestern fans to gripe about blown fourth quarter leads and missed tackles, but they also need to realize how good they have it right now.
In fact, they didn’t have to look far Saturday to see how bad it could be. They just had to glance across the field.
The Illini were called for two sideline interference penalties in the first quarter Saturday, including one where an official collided with Illinois head coach Tim Beckman and knocked him to the ground.
Illinois was also guilty of an “illegal numbering” penalty, an infraction only the Illini could be guilty of. It came as Beckman curiously elected to go for two points after taking an early 6-0 lead. The Illini appeared to convert the play successfully, but they didn’t have enough players on the line of scrimmage and it took the officials several minutes to explain to Beckman what was wrong with the formation.
Yes, in a season full of coaching blunders, Beckman somehow found a new way to directly hurt his team’s chances of winning. Penalties called on the coaching staff are never acceptable, but two sideline infractions in one quarter?
Take note, Northwestern fans. You were once the laughing stock of the Big Ten too.
Those days are long gone now though. And Pat Fitzgerald deserves a good deal of credit for that. He hasn’t led the ‘Cats to a Big Ten title yet as a coach, but he’s also keeping them a good distance away from the conference cellar.
“By no way, shape or form are we where we want to be,” Fitzgerald said. “Our expectations are to have the No. 1 graduation rate in the country, win Big Ten championships and compete for a national championship. We’re not quite there yet, and that’s what we’re building and working towards.”
Sure, fans are frustrated that Penn State scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter earlier this season. They’re frustrated the defense couldn’t protect a two-possession lead against Nebraska. And they’re frustrated that 18 seconds was too much time for Michigan to march into field goal position.
That’s one way to look at it. And a fair way to look at it.
Here’s another way: Northwestern is three stops away from being undefeated.
A young team that realistically wasn’t expected to win more than nine games this season has a chance to win 10. The ‘Cats will likely head to a New Year’s Day bowl game looking to get its first postseason victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl.
Bowl games are typically just glorified exhibitions, but for Northwestern, losers of nine straight bowl games, a win would mean a lot for the program. Fitzgerald called the bowl losing streak “the only lingering negative in our program” and a win would be a good reminder of where Northwestern once was compared to where it is today.
“For our program, this is a big football game for us coming up,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, this is a big, big game. And we’ll prepare that way.”
But bowl win or not, the ‘Cats have a lot of talent coming back in 2013. Venric Mark, Kain Colter, Tony Jones, Mike Trumpy, Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose. There’s a good number of possible All-Big Ten performers coming back and expectations will be even higher in Evanston next season.
Frustrations aside, Fitz has the program trending upward.
Sure, the skeptics will still be out there. They’ll want to see the results. And that’s fair. But be careful what you wish for. Just remember what was happening on the other sideline Saturday in Evanston.
The Fighting Illini are the prime example that change doesn’t guarantee success.
Sometimes change just leads to Tim Beckman.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.