The Nobodies

By Johnny Ginter on October 4, 2013 at 2:00p
20 Comments

Like most red-blooded fans of a college football team from the Big Ten, I have a seething hatred for everyone else in the conference. Wolverines, Badgers, Hoosiers, Boilermakers, whatever, they're all terrible jerks of the highest caliber. Literally the only reason I ever get excited over any of their wins is if they happened to beat a team out of conference that wasn't from the FCS.

But Northwestern is different.

I probably wouldn't have been able to say that in 2004, the last time that the Wildcats beat Ohio State, but today it's hard to look at what Pat Fitzgerald has built in Evanston (especially given their history) with the types of players that he has built with and not be at least a little appreciative of what he's accomplished.

That's not to trot out the "TRUE student athlete" BS that people sometimes ascribe to schools like Northwestern or Vanderbilt or whoever. Northwestern football has boosters, just like everyone else, and I'm sure guys like Venric Mark are still getting a large fry when they order mediums at Wendy's. Northwestern is a great school with an excellent academic reputation, but that doesn't really factor in to exactly what makes them interesting.

Rather, it's more the idea that Pat Fitzgerald has been winning consistently (albeit in a bad conference) with guys who played their high school ball far under the radar of many elite programs. And it's not just that he's done this for a year or two, he's essentially made it the core of his program.

This in of itself isn't new or shocking in college football, obviously. Small schools have to make do with lesser recruits for as long as college football has been around, and it's only since the beginning of scholarship restrictions that said smaller schools have been able to make some headway. Northwestern has recently been able to bring in top 20 classes, and that's a direct result of their recent success on the field.

But let's be clear: the core of the Northwestern football team, particularly the offense, is not that of five star megarecruits who announced their college destination via a hat ceremony on ESPN. That they're as good as they are is a testament to the creativity and skill of Pat Fitzgerald and his staff to find diamonds in the rough and to, more importantly, implement a system of football that maximizes the potential of less-than-elite athletes.

"The identification of a student-athlete that fits your program, in Evanston, it starts with that character evaluation. We've got a set of questions that are married with the values of our program.... If you look at our history in recruiting, we're typically a day late, a week late, a month late in potentially offering a young person and I know sometimes that frustrates our fans but we're going to make sure when we offer a young man that's someone we truly want to become a part of our football family."

it's Pat!A man with a plan

This is a nice quote from Fitz that reinforces the idealization of Northwestern having higher caliber people (rather than players) on their football team, but I think it's a more accurate statement as far as program design goes.

In other words, Fitzgerald and other coaches like him have to become the Billy Beanes of college football, coaxing out achievement and results from places that other people haven't thought to look.

There are several examples on the team: Trevor Siemian couldn't even get an offer from Tennessee. Kain Colter was turned away by both Nebraska and TCU. But probably the greatest example of this process at work is in the 2012 season of Venric Mark, who ran for maybe the quietest 1366 yards in college football history.

Mark was a two star wideout from Houston before he eventually signed with Northwestern. Scout.com had all of one article on the dude before he signed with Fitzgerald, and dozens since. Now coming off of injury, he might be the most dangerous offensive weapon that Ohio State faces on Saturday.

The point is that Pat Fitzgerald has built his team using a large amount of unknown players with a combination of patience and savvy, and it's hard not to root for these guys every weekend (except, you know, this weekend) because of how they were overlooked.


The irony, of course, is that none of these athletes are really "like us," unless you happened to be an FBS caliber athlete in high school and college. Trevor Siemian may have been completely under the radar as a high schooler, but he was and is an incredible football player. Mike Trumpy only got two offers from FCS schools, but that's two more than 95% of high school football players will ever see. Venric Mark may have been a skinny wide receiver in Texas five years ago, but those 1300 plus yards against FBS competition last year didn't just appear out of nowhere.

But's that's all beside the point. College football is a system of haves and have nots, and while I don't think the world will be turned on its head tomorrow, sometimes it's nice to see one of the have nots punch above their weight.

Ohio State will likely beat Northwestern tomorrow, and that'll make me pretty happy. But I'm also happy that in an era where we predict championships for teams three years in advance, televise recruiting commitments from five star athletes, and make draft predictions for players entering into their sophomore year, there are still people and teams that can surprise. Pat Fitzgerald's program continues to do just that.

20 Comments

Comments

FROMTHE18's picture

Massive game saturday. The winner could very well likely end up unbeaten. Lets get it done Bucks.

Dougger's picture

Agreed. Pullin for the nerds to continue to win after the Buckeyes hopefully come out victorious

I like football

Buckeyevstheworld's picture

I don't see NW going to Madison and winning.

"YOLO" = I'm about to do something extremely ignorant/stupid & I need an excuse to do it.

Spider1944's picture

I can see it, Northwestern beating Wisconsin. This summer I marked this date and bought a ticket as soon as I could. Northwestern is there. The next step is a signature win. We are in for a dogfight. And we better be at our best, and that includes the play calling. This team has the ability to put a lot of points fast. 
GO BUCKS!!!

"There are 3 things that can happen and 2 of them are bad" - the Curse of Woody Hayes

RedsBuckeyeBoy's picture

I could be somewhat inclined to agree with you about all of this not hating NW stuff, but my decision is entirely contingent upon what happens tomorrow night!

Boxley's picture

well, i want to win tomorrow, but do want them to beat Wisky any better than we did. Actually would be happy with a tie!
A field goal by either team in OT works for me too.

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt

EnlistedBuckeye's picture

What a hard program to dislike...and I'll only be able to muster up enough dislike for this game. Classy from top to bottom. I honestly dont see such great qualities ooze from many programs around the country. Those kinda feel good traits that you would want in an employee or son in law. Hats off to these guys, right after we kick their teeth in.

CharlieBuckeye's picture

Northwestern would do well to do whatever it can to keep Fitz as a head coach.  Here is a guy who has the ability to get more out of his players than others thought possible.
The above being said, I want the Buckeyes to get more out of themselves and beat the living daylights out of them.
 
GO BUCKEYES!!!!

"To have a great life simply follow this rule:  Do not bring undo conflict into your life..."
Charlie Baker - OSU - 1986

EnlistedBuckeye's picture

I dont see Pat going anywhere...guy is coaching is Alma Matter and making them quite respectable on a national level

UrbanCulture's picture

I did not like that they clearly faked injuries when playing cal.

trasch_man's picture

Fitz is the Billy Beane of football.
 
So basically he is heralded for coming close but never actually winning anything? Billy Beane changed baseball for sure and Fitz has changed Northwestern but neither really did anything as far as getting to the summit of their sport. It's a pretty good comparison in my mind, I suppose for different reasons though.

GoBucks10's picture

honestly, the best part about this game for our Buckeyes is that most of the players have never played Northwestern so hopefully there's little chance they will underestimate them. go Buckeyes!

"Because I couldn't go for three."  - Woody Hayes

CC's picture

It's simple really, the reason I like NW:  they beat non-conference opponents more frequently than any team in the B1G not wearing scarlet and grey.  For that I respect them and even like them.  Most of the other teams (hold MSU) have let me down when rooting for them too many times.

ScarletNGrey01's picture

I'm so happy the football program of an elite private school that very few people can afford to attend and is SO concerned above and beyond the call of duty about the character of their student / athlete is doing well.  All kidding aside, no ill will towards Northwestern, Coach Fitzgerald seems like a pretty good guy, but the bucks need to beat them and preferably by a large margin.  I pull for B1G teams when they play out of conference except for TTUN and the school located in that delusional cult-like valley.  The Wisconsin basketball team (HATE their style of play, only watch them when they play the bucks, I can't "deal with it") is kind of the same way, they recruit undervalued guys that are willing to be very disciplined and play within a system.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

Seattle Linga's picture

We need to dictate the flow of the game and play like the top five team that we are, and we'll be fine. BRING IT EVERY DOWN and we'll enjoy the results.

throttlefinger's picture

Had a roommate who went to NW. Played Widespread Panic bootlegs every day and quoted his blubs in Zagat anytime someone mentioned "food". And worst, ate a moon pie I had in the freezer for 2 days that I was saving for when I came home from a night of carousing. Nice work Fitz, but every time I see NW, I see this dicknose. Thus, I hate the Wildcats. 

JLP36's picture

NW is nothing more than a solid team.  They win out of conference games that they should win.  The Big Ten is so weak that from that this game is pumped up as one of the best of the conference's slate for the whole season.  The Buckeyes SHOULD STOMP them hard.  Which Wildcat would you trade a Buckeye for?
Their players are good.  Some are very good.  The coaches are very, very good at fully utilizing what they have to work with, but they will never be working with an elite talent level.  Think about the recruiting showcase Meyer and Ohio State crafted last week.  This is NW's version of that.  Only problem is the stadium seats 45,000, it will be filled with fans of the opponent, and the superiority of the opponent's athletes will be readily apparent despite the knee high grass that would look lame on any HS field in Ohio.
I have nothing but respect for Fitzpatrick.  I hope he stays around and beats up on Michigan for years to come.  That said, I think the Buckeyes SHOULD rain destruction on them tomorrow night.  When they do no one will be greatly impressed.  It will be fun to watch but it will not be an impressive feat.
We need some meat on the schedule.  We need it to make the games more fun.  We need it to get some credit in the polls.  Most of all we need it to bring the best out of the Buckeyes so that they can improve and reach their full potential.

JLP36

buckskin's picture

Let's see; underdog program which considering the quality of players they get, should be B1G bottom dwellers.  Classic overachievers who receive hardly any recognition.  Hard not to like a program like that. 
Here's to the Bucks playing a complete game and dominating the Purple people eaters.

HilliardJoe's picture

My kids go/went to Hilliard Darby High School and my oldest kid's first year was one Jeremy Ebert's senior year.
He was a quick and tough option style QB that led the school to it's first ever playoff appearance.  He also led the team to it's first ever win over hometown rival and recent football powerhouse Davidson.
He was a smart kid also so I was not surprised to see him being recruited by NW.  I figured, good for the kid, he'll get a good, free education at NW and be setup nice for life.  And then I started seeing NW highlights and seeing him mentioned.  So I started following NW a little bit more.  In the local kid doing well sort of way.  He turned into a very nice NCAA receiver while at NW.
Just so happened to be watching Red Zone network last week and then heard his name mentioned again.  He's playing WR for the Jags right now.  Only has 2 receptions for the year but hell, that is more than 99.99% of high school WR's out there.  He can say he's playing in the league.
In some ways I always looked at him as NW's Sanzenbacher.  The not quite tall enough, not fast enough, but quick WR that has great hands.

45has2's picture

Give us your lunch money, nerds.

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes