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Northwestern, fans banking on Watkins

If Northwestern wants to win its first bowl game in more than 60 years Saturday in the TicketCity Bowl against Texas Tech in Dallas, the Wildcats need to pull out every gimmick in the book — or at least try to.

It’s time for NU to let it all go, go for the trick plays and win one for a university aching to be part of the elite in the Big Ten. The smallest school in the conference (enrollment around 8,000) has battled against schools two and three times its size for decades, and maybe that has caused a bit of an inferiority complex.

Whenever a bowl game comes around, it is inevitable that the subjects of fan support and ticket sales come up. The Wildcats have had decent support on the road, but from what I’ve seen this season, they don’t have the alumni fan base and don’t travel as well as Iowa, Illinois or Michigan State, for example. And that’s no fault of the school. For months athletic director Jim Phillips has said NU is handcuffed by a small enrollment, which leads to a smaller-than-average alumni base.

It was hard enough for Wildcats supporters to stomach the last two bowl games, in which NU lost to Missouri in overtime in the Alamo Bowl in 2008, then dropped another overtime heart-ripper to Auburn in the Outback Bowl last January — on a failed fake field goal, no less.

But can the TicketCity Bowl be any different? It might be now that redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins has had a little more than a month to prepare. Any backup quarterback who is thrown into the fire, as Watkins was against Illinois on Nov. 20 at Wrigley Field and on Nov. 27 at Wisconsin, has got to have thicker skin by now.

Watkins took the blame for both losses and acknowledged that he has to trust his looks and try to do a better job of getting rid of the ball. He thinks all the hoopla surrounding the Illinois game at Wrigley might help him mentally prepare for playing Texas Tech at the historic Cotton Bowl.

“I feel a lot more prepared and a lot more confident than I did before,” Watkins said. “[The Illinois game] helped, and it was a crazy atmosphere. [The TicketCity Bowl] is going to be similar, but Wrigley may have been crazier than this is going to be. I don’t know, but it helped to take in an environment like that.”

You’ve got to think that in the last two weeks’ worth of practices, Wildcats coaches have put in some new plays and toyed with personnel changes. Watkins, for one, wouldn’t say for sure.

“I don’t know if [the coaches] expanded it much, but we’ve got some good things in there to get the guys to make plays on the field,” Watkins said. “I think you have nothing to lose. And if it comes down to that, I’m sure coaches will pull anything out of the playbook that we’ve ever had, so you have to be ready for that.”

Watkins and his backup, true freshman Kain Colter, have impressed coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has referred to Watkins’ high school days at Glenbard North. Watkins led the Panthers to the Class 8A state-title game in his junior year before they lost to Naperville North. So Watkins isn’t unfamiliar with the big stage.

“I think [Watkins] is further along mentally and physically,” Fitzgerald said. “He won a lot in high school, and he just needs to get his first win [in college] under his belt and his confidence will take off.”

NU Nation is hoping Fitzgerald is right.

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