Loren Tate: Illini need to catch Wildcats now
CHICAGO — There was a day past — no cellphones, remember? — when Illini Nation took Northwestern for granted. The rivalry seldom tickled the heartstrings.
UI fans considered Ohio State and Michigan “archrivals” and got heated for those then-annual, now-infrequent football meetings.
Times change. Illinois coach Tim Beckman calls the Wildcats “that school up north,” omitting the name as a point of emphasis. Grrr!
Actually, as was apparent during Monday’s Big Ten kickoff, Illinois has tumbled into catch-up status in striving to outdo “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” with “Our State, Our Team.” Up north, as they strive for recognition with Chicago’s pro franchises, dynamic athletic director Jim Phillips (corporate sponsors are soaring) and youthfully vigorous coach Pat Fitzgerald are attracting attention.
With Notre Dame moving onto Northwestern’s November road schedule (to be returned in 2018), the Wildcats are playing an attractive lineup that begins Aug. 30 with Cal and follows with Northern Illinois. Don’t overlook the NIU Huskies. They’re 46-10 since 2010 and stand 4-4 against Big Ten foes since 2009.
“Some people don’t like our schedule, but we consider it daunting and exciting,” Fitzgerald said. “We get to spend the first month at home, and we have a chance to move into the Top 25 early. That’s important.”
With those early showdowns, and with Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and Illinois expected to bring thousands of their own followers to Ryan Field, Northwestern should pass 40,000 on average ... even though students won’t be on campus early. A modest 40,000 would be an improvement by a school with weak turnouts in the past, only 47,000 seats at Ryan, and fewer alumni in Chicago than every Big Ten team except the last four distant additions (Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers).
The Northwestern team’s union vote (result still unknown) spearheaded by former quarterback Kain Colter drew heavy media attention but has faded into the background. And the current senior QB, Trevor Siemian, is an influential team leader who spoke out against unionizing.
“I’m proud of the maturity we’ve shown through the whole process,” Fitzgerald said. “After our visits in the offseason, I believe there is not a more unified team in the country. The experience was nothing but positive and was a springboard for our leadership, especially Siemian. He is much more engaged.”
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany called the union effort “surprising, but the world we live in is dynamic.” He said it will ultimately be settled “pursuant to the law.” There are limitations to it spreading because (1) a private school resolution wouldn’t affect others, (2) labor issues are resolved state by state and (3) the five major conferences are taking steps to meet player demands, though not with salaries.
Fitzgerald has sustained a level of staff continuity seldom seen. He has kept his offensive and defensive coordinators for six consecutive years and has had nine assistants for four straight years.
That gives them a head start because Fitzgerald doesn’t have to spend time coaching coaches.
After two years of dueling QBs — Siemian and Colter — the ball will be in Siemian’s hands this season. More passer than runner, he threw for 2,149 yards and 11 TDs in 2013, including 414 yards and four TDs in a 37-34 win at Illinois.
“It starts and ends with our quarterback,” Fitzgerald said. “He is naturally laid back, but he has taken on a strong leadership role. His presence can put a great jolt in our offense.”
Seniors at skill slots
Besides Siemian, Northwestern has returning seniors at running back (Treyvon Green) and receivers (Christian Jones and Tony Jones). Those three accounted for 16 TDs last year. But for the offense to be effective, the line must improve.
“Depth up front is key,” Fitzgerald said. “We weren’t prepared when we had injuries last season. We’ve taken on that challenge (of developing depth). We have 18 starters returning, nine on each side.”
When Northwestern hosted Ohio State last Oct. 5, the Wildcats had won 14 of 17 games and led in the final three minutes of the three losses. It was wildly anticipated and stacked up as Northwestern’s “Game of the Decade.” And when the Wildcats lost, they never recovered.
“We went through a stretch that was not fun,” Fitzgerald said. “We didn’t stick to our values, and we didn’t respond. I took that as personally disappointing. We were not successful in stopping the run and protecting the quarterback. We’ve spent a lot of time with our guys, especially in the defensive line.”
So, where do the Wildcats fall? They went from 14-3 and a bowl triumph to seven consecutive losses. It could go either direction from here. But give them credit: They’re making noise, put the union business behind and showed they’re not afraid to schedule some toughies. If they can keep 18 returning starters healthy, who knows?
CORRECTION: Steve Stricker and the Illini golf pros will attend the annual UI event at Olympia Fields in August, but not in the 72-player affair featuring Illini squadmen at Stone Creek in September. Had it wrong Sunday. My bad.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.