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Northwestern football wants role on national scene

Updated: July 25, 2013 3:27PM

The answers were about as predictable as the questions for Northwestern at the first day of the Big Ten media days Wednesday.

Coming off a 10-win season and having won their first bowl game in 64 years, the Wildcats have garnered the kind of national accolades that coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn’t seen since he played at Northwestern.

Being novices when it comes to expectations, the Wildcats fielded questions about how they’ll handle being considered a favorite to win the conference. Predictably, they said they always have had high expectations for themselves, regardless of the national perception.

But it was somewhat surprising to hear Fitzgerald tell reporters that part of the team’s goal last season was to change the national perception about the program.

“We’ve had a focus inward to eliminate the noise of negativity, and for a lot of reasons, that’s why that bowl win was very significant a year ago,” Fitzgerald said. “It was not only to eliminate kind of the last negative as it goes to our program, but also maybe to change national perception for our fans, for recruiting.”

But as much progress as the program made last season, it was more about what could have been that raised expectations for the Wildcats this season.

Northwestern could have earned a berth in a BCS bowl last season. In all three of its losses, to Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, the Wildcats led in the fourth quarter.

A core of returning defensive players understands that closing the door on opponents is key for the program to take the next step.

“It’s just focusing on those times towards the end of those games and being ready to make that one play here and there,” senior defensive end Tyler Scott said. “There were so many times where we just needed to make one more play, and we’ve really focused on that through the offseason.”

The Wildcats already have had to adjust to the logistical challenges of being nationally recognized. Four of Northwestern’s first five games will be played at night, so Fitzgerald adjusted the practice schedule.

Practices will start at 9 p.m. for the week leading up to Northwestern’s season opener at California, which starts at 9:30 p.m. CT.

“We’ve come up short in the past, and we came up a little short last year, but [championships] always have been our goal,” senior quarterback Kain Colter said. “We haven’t been there in a while. Some people might [still] be sleeping on us.”

Not anymore.

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