EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — The last time the stakes were this high for Northwestern, coach Pat Fitzgerald was a star linebacker on a team that captured the nation's imagination. A Rose Bowl run snapped a string of 23 losing seasons and made the Wildcats a feel-good story in 1995.
More than two decades later, No. 21 Northwestern is one win away from a return trip.
The Wildcats (8-4, 8-1) are set to face No. 6 Ohio State in their first Big Ten championship game appearance on Saturday in what could be a signature moment for a consistent winner trying to earn its spot among the conference's elite.
"You're still in the bunker mentality," Fitzgerald said Monday. "It's great not to be on the road recruiting today, I can tell you that. I can get used to this. Practicing the first week of December is the goal every year. And obviously to finally get over that hump and now be in the championship game is definitely a goal. We want to be in consistently, so that's the next step as we move forward. As a program, this is an unbelievable opportunity."
With a 95-69 record in 13 years, Fitzgerald has nearly twice as many victories as any other Northwestern coach.
The Wildcats have eight bowl appearances and three 10-win seasons under him. One thing missing during his tenure was a first-place finish. They changed that by winning the Big Ten West. And if they pull off the stunner against Ohio State, that would be another huge twist in a season that's seen a few.
Northwestern is in this position despite dropping three in a row following a season-opening victory over Purdue. The Wildcats went 0-3 in nonconference play, with a loss to Akron. But if they take out that other Ohio school this week, they'll get a ticket to Pasadena for the first time in 23 years.
"You have to build on this," guard J.B. Butler said. "For the program, this has to be an every-year thing — competing for the Big Ten West title and having a chance to win the Big Ten championship game."
Though they're a longshot to beat Ohio State, the Wildcats are on a roll.
They've won seven of eight and their lone loss during that stretch was a tight one against a likely playoff team — by 10 to No. 3 Notre Dame on Nov. 3.
Northwestern is 15-1 in its past 16 Big Ten games. And the Wildcats have won nine in a row away from Ryan Field, including a victory over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl last season.
Even so, a win over Ohio State would be a big surprise. The Wildcats have dropped six in a row against the Buckeyes since a 33-27 victory in 2004 and 30 of the past 31 meetings.
"I don't think anyone outside these doors would pick us to win this game," Fitzgerald said. "My mom and dad, I guess, would."
Safety Jared McGee said: "I think we know what kind of team Ohio State is and I think we know the challenges ahead of us. I think we do a good job of preparing to play any team the same way, whether we're playing Illinois or we're playing them. We prepare the same way so I don't think it'll be too big of a challenge, but it'll definitely help us come in with a chip on our shoulders."
Win or lose, Fitzgerald sees a program in a good spot, with consistent success and sparkling new facilities.
"Those are comfortable chairs, aren't they?" he said.
The stadium seats with cup-holders and desktops in the auditorium were part of a neat upgrade this year. Northwestern built a posh lakefront practice facility that included a massive weight room, sports medicine center, a virtual reality room that allows quarterbacks to watch 3-D video and an outdoor lounge.
Another big bonus was this: Players no longer have to shuttle a mile to the facilities adjacent to Ryan Field. That's a major timesaver for them.
The new facility is obviously a major recruiting selling point. And it's also a point of reflection for Fitzgerald, even as he looks toward the future.
"Every time I walk into this building, I think of the guys in the '70s and '80s that didn't have this type of support," he said. "And the messages that I get from them all the time are ... really important to me. I hope we represent that group the right way. I hope that group and those groups of men take pride in where the program is today. Did we get over a big hump and win the Big Ten West?
"Yeah," he continued. "I think when you're in a competitive environment and you don't achieve your goals, it's an incredible, incredible motivator and it drives you relentlessly to get better. And now that we've achieved one of our goals ... it's gonna drive us even more to get the second goal. And then obviously the third goal happens after this week. It's exciting."
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