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Northwestern showing plenty of pep while they prep for Gator Bowl

Indianv Northwestern

Indiana v Northwestern

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Updated: January 21, 2013 4:03PM

It was defensive staff members against offensive staffers in a game of seven-on-seven after practice earlier this week, with Northwestern players shouting encouragement and criticism from the end zone.

The over-under for frayed ligaments and torn tendons was 3. Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, nobody was injured.

“The worst showing of athleticism in America today,” is how Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald described it.

As weary as he might be about answering questions regarding his program’s bowl drought, Fitzgerald won’t let the “last negative” surrounding Northwestern turn his team’s bowl preparation into a forced march.

There’s plenty of work to be done before the Wildcats kick off against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. But there’s some fun to be had, too, whether it be his team attending a Bulls game or Fitzgerald making offensive linemen spin until they’re dizzy before trying to catch passes while running through a gauntlet of laughing teammates.

“It’s not really like this during the season,” safety Ibraheim Campbell confided. “It’s very strict business-wise. It’s about getting things done and being efficient. Right now, we’re having fun. We are trying to make practices as enjoyable as possible, but we’re always working no matter what.”

Fitzgerald knows he’s bound to be asked about Northwestern not winning a bowl game since 1949. It raises his hackles when people assume it’s because of flaws in his preparation.

The Wildcats haven’t failed to show up or blown a big lead, and it’s not as though Northwestern was favored to beat Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Auburn or Missouri in recent years.

“I have no issues with how we’ve handled it in the past,” he said. “We’ve prepared well. I have zero issues with way the guys have gone about their business in the past. We have to coach the guys to finish the job. There’s no negative for me looking in the rear-view mirror.”

Under Fitzgerald, the Wildcats either have lost close games to superior opponents or were simply outgunned. Truth be told, several of those outcomes were closer than they should have been.

Take Northwestern’s 38-35 loss to Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl. The Tigers won the national championship the next season.

“We’ve played some damn good football teams, and we’ve gone toe-to-toe,” Fitzgerald said. “We just haven’t finished the job.”

A victory over Mississippi State would end the conversation. Fitzgerald and his players are saying all the right things, but there’s a real opportunity here. The Bulldogs lost four of their last five games. Five victories came against Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama, Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. Two more were against Auburn and Arkansas, two programs that combined to win seven games this season.

Dan Mullen’s team has struggled to stop the run. Northwestern has the nation’s 14th-best rushing offense. Mississippi State also has struggled to run the ball.

The Bulldogs might be two-point favorites, but the Wildcats are hardly underdogs.

“We’ve taken our time to game plan,” Fitzgerald said. “By Thursday, we’ll have introduced the game plan, and we’ll go over it again when we get down to Jacksonville. That’s been our plan the last three years, and it has worked really well. We haven’t necessarily gotten a win, but we’ve executed very well.”

There will be no more questions about bowl losing streaks if they execute against Mississippi State.

In the meantime, the game is too demanding not to have some fun.

“It’s fun to get after the coaches,” Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi said after the players coached the coaches Tuesday after practice. “They spend the whole year yelling at us whenever we make a mistake. Anytime something goes wrong, we’re ripping them. Some of those guys are still athletes, and some of those guys probably need to go put an ice pack on.”

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