It’s surprising enough that No. 22 Northwestern has won the Big Ten West, even more shocking when you consider the Wildcats wrapped up the title with two conference games to go.
The first of those games will come Saturday at Minnesota, and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, predictably, won’t step off the accelerator as his team speeds toward its first conference championship game.
“Champions win football games,” Fitzgerald said at his weekly press conference.
“You do that by the way that you prepare and you do that by the way you execute and you do that by the way you play. We are going to have a pedal-down mentality here. I’m never going to take my foot off the gas.
“We’ll rest and recharge in January. This is football. This is not NBA basketball or Major League Baseball where, ‘He’s just a little bit tired, so we’re going to give him a rest.’
“This is college football. You have got to work your tail off to get better, you have work your tail off to stay consistent and you have to work your tail off to win.”
Northwestern (6-4, 6-1) has won five of its past six games, losing only to No. 3 Notre Dame during that span. Minnesota, after firing defensive coordinator Robb Smith following a 55-31 loss to Illinois, regrouped with an impressive 41-10 win over Purdue last week.
Coach P.J. Fleck promoted defensive line coach Joe Rossi to defensive coordinator. The Boilermakers had been averaging 38.5 points and 485.2 yards per game in the Big Ten play.
“Defensively, it was exactly what we needed to do,” Fleck said.
“It brings it back to the Fresno State game where I thought we played really well. Everybody was on the same page. … We tackled well, we rallied to the ball. We played for each other and played what I think our style of defense should always look like.”
The Gophers (5-5, 2-5) have a 5-1 home record and are one win from becoming bowl-eligible.
Northwestern started the season 1-3 and lost standout running back Jeremy Larkin to medical retirement because of a cervical stenosis diagnosis.
But the Wildcats, according to Fitzgerald, “stayed the course,” and freshman running back Isaiah Bowser helped lead the resurgence. He is averaging more than 120 rushing yards per game since being named the starter in an 18-15 win at Rutgers on Oct. 20.
“He’s taken his game up a notch,” Fitzgerald said.
“He’s just gotten more and more confident with each rep and each game. You could see him kind of turn the corner from a confidence standpoint in the Rutgers game. I think that was a big catalyst for his confidence, and he’s played really well since.”
One concern for Northwestern is that Fitzgerald, who doesn’t usually update injuries early in the week, ruled out cornerbacks Montre Hartage (hamstring) and Trae Williams (ankle), as well as safety Jared McGee (undisclosed) for this week’s game. The coach said each of those defensive backs should return before the end of the season.
Minnesota redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan is 2-1 as a starter since taking over for true freshman QB Zack Annexstad, who is questionable this week due to a midsection injury.
Morgan has thrown for 948 yards, with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
“Our playmakers were making plays, and the guys up front were dominating the line of scrimmage,” Morgan said after the win over Purdue. “It’s amazing to see guys making plays everywhere around the field. That’s what we are capable of doing.”
Wide receiver Tyler Johnson has 62 catches for 948 yards and nine touchdowns.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson might have an NFL future — he’s the fourth-rated senior QB, according to NFLDraftScout.com — but Northwestern has a lot of business to try to take care of before that.
“All hands on deck,” Fitzgerald said.
“We’ll prepare just like we always do. We look at each game with the same process and the mentality of going 1-0 each week.”