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updated: 7/28/2014 8:51 PM

Fitzgerald ready to get Northwestern back on track

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  • Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats are looking to bounce back from last season's 5-7 finish.

    Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats are looking to bounce back from last season's 5-7 finish.
    Associated Press

By Jeff Arnold

Pat Fitzgerald likes to brand his Northwestern football program as Chicago's Big Ten team.

But on a day when the rest of the conference showed up for the league's annual media days, Fitzgerald suggested that when it comes to preseason hype forecasting the Big Ten's best teams this season, the Wildcats often are left out of the conversation.

A disappointing season will do that to a program, but heading into his ninth year in Evanston, Fitzgerald also has gotten used to a tradition of often being mentioned as one of the league's also-rans.

"We're not a preseason type of a place, I guess," Fitzgerald said Monday at the Chicago Hilton.

Two years removed from a 10-3 season and a victory in the Gator Bowl, the Wildcats hope to bounce back from a 5-7 finish when they went 1-7 in conference play. After starting 4-0, Northwestern endured a seven-game losing streak before finishing the season by beating in-state rival Illinois to capture the Battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

Twelve months ago, the question surrounding Northwestern was whether the Wildcats would turn the corner and remain in the Big Ten's upper crust.

On Monday, the talk centered on how Northwestern will bounce back from a year when Fitzgerald said his players "owned" the mistakes that cost them games against Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan.

Northwestern returns 18 starters, including nine on offense. None will be bigger than redshirt junior Trevor Siemian, who appeared in 12 games last season and threw for 2,149 yards and 11 touchdowns. Siemian took a vocal leadership role in the spring when talk of unionization became a distraction, establishing himself as someone to take over the program.

Running back Venric Mark also will be ready to go when the Wildcats begin practice next week. Mark redshirted last year because of hamstring and ankle injuries following a year when he ran for 1,366 yards.

With plenty of experience back, Northwestern -- which opens the season Aug. 30 at home against California -- will look to correct the mistakes of last season. Fitzgerald said the difference between the success of 2012 and last year's frustrations came down to about five plays.

In 2012 those plays went Northwestern's way. Last year they didn't, forcing Fitzgerald's team to take a look at itself and decide how it would handle adversity.

"You get what you earn," Fitzgerald said. "You are what your record says it is, and ours isn't good enough. That's not our expectation. You can use it one of two ways. You can use it in a negative light, or you can use it as a motivator."

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