Northwestern's title quest starts with Nevada opener
With more wins than any other Northwestern coach and two of the Wildcats' three bowl victories, Pat Fitzgerald could call his tenure a success.
Yet there's something missing as he enters his 12th season -- first-place finishes.
The Wildcats hope a strong start will propel them toward that elusive goal, beginning with their opener against Nevada on Saturday (2:30 p.m. BTN).
"We haven't won championships and that's a driving force," said Fitzgerald, 77-62 with seven bowl appearances. "We've been close. We've won bowl championships. We've been in a lot of great bowl games, played some of the more entertaining games maybe in program history. But to get over that next hurdle is the next step for our program."
Before division play and since its advent in 2011, Northwestern has not finished higher than second place in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats come into this season with one of the league's best running backs, a quarterback eyeing the NFL and a lingering bitter taste after going 7-6. They open against a team with a new coach after failing to break .500 in Mountain West games the past four years.
Here's a closer look at the matchup:
Fitzgerald said he believes a strong finish last season carried into the offseason program and hopes it leads to a better start this year.
That would be a change from 2016. Coming off a 10-win season, Northwestern opened with back-to-back losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. The Wildcats were staring at a 1-3 record after dropping their Big Ten opener to Nebraska at home, then regrouped to win six of their final nine. They nearly won at Ohio State and beat Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl.
It was a nice recovery after a rough start, something they're looking to avoid this time.
"That's something we've kind of used this whole offseason as motivation to start faster," said quarterback Clayton Thorson, a Wheaton North grad. "We used it throughout workouts, throughout practice, throughout pretty much everything. That really put us in a hole."
The Jay Norvell era begins for Nevada. A longtime college assistant who has also worked in the NFL, Norvell makes his head-coaching debut after being hired in December.
After spending last season as Arizona State's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, he takes over a team coming off a 5-7 finish. Nevada went 23-27 in four seasons under Brian Polian, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian.
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson, a Glenbard North grad, is closing in on the school's all-time rushing mark.
Second with 4,129 yards, he needs 357 to break Damien Anderson's mark. He enters his senior season with more combined carries and catches than any other Power Five conference player the past three years. Jackson also could join Wisconsin's Ron Dayne as the only Big Ten players to run for 1,000 or more all four seasons.
Like Jackson, Thorson is also etching his name in the school's record book. He set a program mark with 22 touchdown passes last year and enters his junior season needing 16 more to surpass Brett Basanez and Len Williams as Northwestern's all-time leader.
Nevada is transitioning from a run-heavy offense to a pass-oriented attack. Question is: Who's the No. 1 quarterback -- returning starter Ty Gangi or Alabama transfer David Cornwell?
Gangi led the Wolf Pack to a 2-2 record starting the final four games filling in for the injured Tyler Stewart. Cornwell, a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility left, played in just two games at Alabama and never attempted a pass.
2017 Northwestern football schedule
All times subject to change; home games at Ryan Field listed in CAPS. Tickets at nusports.com
Date: Opponent, Time (TV)
Sept. 2: NEVADA, 2:30 p.m. BTN/BTN2
Sept. 9: at Duke, 11 a.m., ESPNU
Sept. 16: BOWLING GREEN, 6:30 p.m. BTN/BTN2
Sept. 30: at Wisconsin, TBA
Oct. 7: PENN STATE, 11 a.m.
Oct. 14: at Maryland, TBA
Oct. 21: IOWA, TBA
Oct. 28: MICHIGAN STATE, TBA
Nov. 4: at Nebraska, TBA
Nov. 11: PURDUE, TBA
Nov. 18: MINNESOTA, TBA
Nov. 25: at Illinois, TBA