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FANS OVER A CERTAIN AGE MAY NEVER LOSE THEIR IMAGE OF Northwestern as a perennial cellar dweller, but thanks to the work of Pat Fitzgerald, first as a star linebacker and now as the Wildcats' fifth-year coach, a younger generation knows little of the school's dark era. "Those days are over," says the 35-year-old Fitzgerald, who played on Northwestern's 1995 and '96 Big Ten championship teams and has coached the Wildcats to a 17-9 record the past two seasons. "That conversation is dead."
While 10 years have passed since Northwestern's last conference title, the program has never enjoyed more consistency than it has the past seven seasons, winning at least six games all but once and reaching four bowl games. Continuing that success will likely require a smooth transition from last year's second-team All-Big Ten quarterback, Mike Kafka (a fourth-round selection by the Philadelphia Eagles), to junior Dan Persa. Otherwise, five starters return on the offense.
Persa, a 6' 1", 210-pound Pennsylvanian, fits the mold of a typical Northwestern spread-option quarterback (he briefly returned kickoffs as a freshman), and he gained valuable experience last season when Kafka suffered a hamstring injury; Persa went 19 of 32 for 152 yards passing and rushed 31 times for 109 yards against Penn State and Iowa. "Dan's an incredible athlete with a great grasp of this system," says Fitzgerald.
Under the direction of third-year coordinator Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern's defense improved from 10th in the Big Ten in 2007 to fifth each of the past two seasons. Though he must now replace several veteran standouts, Fitzgerald considers this year's group capable, thanks to multiyear starters such as defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams, and cornerback Jordan Mabin.
The Wildcats have two overriding goals for 2010: to reach a third straight bowl game for the first time in school history and to earn a W once they get there. The past two seasons have ended in overtime heartbreakers, against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl and Auburn in the Outback Bowl. "We're so motivated," said Bryant. "We prepared so well for those two bowl games. We're not going to stop until we get that win."
COACH Pat Fitzgerald (5th year)
27-23 (15-17 in Big Ten)