Dec 31, 2018; San Diego, CA, United States; Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald runs onto the field during the 2018 Holiday Bowl against the Utah Utes at SDCCU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern gives Pat Fitzgerald new deal through 2030

Northwestern and football coach Pat Fitzgerald agreed Wednesday to a new contract through the 2030 season.

Fitzgerald, 46, has held the job at his alma mater since 2006, leading the Wildcats to a 106-81 record with 10 bowl appearances.

“We have one of the best coaches in college football and, more importantly, a leader uncommonly suited to this University,” vice president for athletics and recreation Jim Phillips said in a news release. “Over the course of his tenure, Coach Fitzgerald has built a culture of unwavering belief in excellence both on and off the field, and led our Wildcats to unprecedented sustained success. They boast incredible achievement in the classroom, in the community and in competition, and will for years to come.”

He is the winningest coach in school history and the sixth-longest tenured head coach in the FBS.

Northwestern finished 7-2 and ranked No. 10 in the country in 2020 after winning the Big Ten West division for the second time in three years and beating Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. Fitzgerald was named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year.

It was the highest end-of-season ranking for the program since 1995, a team that featured Fitzgerald as a starting linebacker.

“From the moment I stepped on campus as an undergraduate, I have believed this is the finest University in the country, with the potential to offer an unmatched student-athlete experience,” Fitzgerald said in the release.

“… We have built the foundation to compete for championships in tandem with the best academic and personal development opportunity anywhere in college football. We all have a lot to be proud of, but our best is yet to come.”

–Field Level Media

Jan 1, 2021; Orlando, FL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Blake Gallagher (51) and defensive back Brandon Joseph (16) combine to stop Auburn Tigers wide receiver Seth Williams (18) during the second quarter at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

No. 14 Northwestern beats Auburn to win Citrus Bowl

Peyton Ramsey threw three touchdowns and added another on the ground to lead No. 14 Northwestern to a 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl on Friday afternoon in Orlando, Fla.

Ramsey finished 24-for-35 for 291 passing yards and contributed 50 rushing yards for the Wildcats (7-2), who won their fourth straight bowl game.

Bo Nix was 25-for-42 for 292 yards and a touchdown for the Tigers (6-5) before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with an injury.

Northwestern dominated the first quarter, totaling 94 more yards than Auburn and scoring 14 points.

On the first possession of the game, the Wildcats paced down the field. Ramsey was a perfect 5-for-5 on the drive, finishing it off with a beautiful 35-yard toss to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for the first touchdown.

Later in the period, Ramsey had a couple of 19-yard completions to Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Riley Lees to keep the chains moving. Ramsey once again ended the drive with a touchdown pass, this time a six-yard swing to John Raine to go up 14-0.

Anders Carlson kicked two field goals in the second quarter for Auburn to go into the half down 14-6.

The Tigers cut the deficit to 14-13 in the middle of the third quarter when A.J. Hampton bit on a play fake, leaving Elijah Canion wide open. Nix found Canion for a 57-yard score.

Ramsey pushed the lead back to 21-13 with a 30-yard scramble for a touchdown near the end of the third quarter.

After stopping Nix on a QB sneak on fourth-and-short, Northwestern took over the game. Cam Porter ran the ball on all seven plays of the drive, going 50 yards and ending with a touchdown.

Ramsey added the final nail in the coffin by hitting Lees in the end zone for his third touchdown of the day.

With the win, Northwestern’s defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz earned his 400th career victory as an assistant coach. He had previously announced he was going to retire after the Citrus Bowl.

–Field Level Media

Dec 12, 2020; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Auburn Tigers running back Tank Bigsby (4) runs the ball against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the fourth quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

No. 14 Northwestern, Auburn get postseason rematch in Citrus Bowl

Eleven years to the day after facing off in a thrilling bowl game, the Auburn Tigers and No. 14 Northwestern Wildcats meet again on New Year’s Day in the Citrus Bowl at Orlando, Fla.

The teams played in the 2010 Outback Bowl, with the Tigers pulling out a 38-35 overtime victory. Current Kansas City Chiefs quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka completed 47 of 78 passes for 532 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions for the Wildcats.

Northwestern scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes to tie the game, but the Tigers’ Wes Byrum kicked a 21-yard field goal in OT and the Wildcats were unable to equalize. Auburn went on to win the national championship the following season.

This year, the Wildcats (6-2) enter the bowl game coming off a 22-10 loss to No. 3 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. Northwestern led the Buckeyes 10-6 at the half, but three second-half turnovers and a tired defense gave way to a potent Ohio State rushing attack.

“We just didn’t make the plays we needed to make down the stretch in the fourth quarter to be Big Ten champions,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But to have the opportunity to represent the Big Ten in Orlando, we are ecstatic.”

The Tigers (6-4) haven’t played since Dec. 12, and in that time they fired head coach Gus Malzahn and hired Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has stepped into the interim head-coaching role for the bowl game.

“These guys have been resilient,” Steele said. “They’ve shown a lot of character, leadership and just the ability to adapt. We’ve actually had an additional bump in the road that we had a change at the top for us, which is something that’s hard on a football program. And so we’re going through that.”

Both teams have their conference’s freshman of the year.

Auburn running back Tank Bigsby was selected the Southeastern Conference’s top freshman after rushing for 834 yards on 138 carries in 10 games. He added 300 kick-return yards and 84 receiving yards for 1,218 all-purpose yards.

Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph won the Freshman of the Year award for the Big Ten, the first strictly defensive player to win the award since Deion Barnes in 2012. Joseph leads the nation with six interceptions.

The game will also be the last in the career of Northwestern’s defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who would reach 400 career wins if the Wildcats win the Citrus Bowl.

Hankwitz started his coaching career at his alma mater of Michigan and served as the defensive coordinator for Arizona, Western Michigan, Colorado, Kansas State, Texas A&M and Wisconsin before being hired by Fitzgerald before the 2008 season.

Hankwitz is a finalist for the Broyles Award, which goes to the best assistant coach in the country, and Fitzgerald believes Northwestern’s success on defense starts and ends with Hankwitz.

“You look at my head coaching career here and our success, I mean Mike Hankwitz is in the DNA, the fabric, the architect, take whatever you want to say,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m just so grateful for him.”

–Field Level Media

Dec 19, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes running back Trey Sermon (8) leaps over Northwestern Wildcats defensive back A.J. Hampton (11) during the first half of the Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Doug McSchooler-USA TODAY Sports

Sermon rallies No. 4 Ohio State over Northwestern for Big Ten title

Trey Sermon set Ohio State and Big Ten Championship Game records with 331 rushing yards as No. 4 Ohio State rallied to defeat No. 14 Northwestern 22-10 in Indianapolis on Saturday.

Ohio State (6-0) trailed 10-6 at the half but won its fourth straight conference title when Sermon had touchdown runs of 9 yards to take a 13-10 lead in the third quarter and 3 yards with four minutes left for the final margin against the Wildcats (6-2).

Eddie George ran for 314 yards for the Buckeyes against Illinois in 1995. The previous title game record was 220 yards by Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott in 2014 vs. Wisconsin.

With quarterback Josh Fields struggling, Sermon took over and rushed for 271 yards in the second half. He finished with 29 carries.

After a fumble by Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey, the Buckeyes got a 26-yard field goal from Blake Haubeil to take a 16-10 lead with 12:07 to play.

The Wildcats, who were 20 1/2-point underdogs, led at halftime with a 9-yard touchdown run by Cam Porter on their first possession and Charlie Kuhbander’s 47-yard field goal near the midpoint of the second quarter.

Ohio State drove to the Northwestern 25 or better three times in the first half but came away with field goals of 41 and 43 yards by Haubeil the first two times.

In the final seconds of the half, the Buckeyes were at the Wildcats’ 9-yard line when Brandon Joseph made a one-handed interception of Fields in the end zone, Joseph’s sixth pick of the season.

Fields completed 12 of 27 passes for 114 yards with two interceptions. Ramsey was 24-of-37 passing for 224 yards and two picks.

The Buckeyes were missing leading receiver Chris Olave, starting linebacker Baron Browning and first-team punter Drue Chrisman, who were among 22 players out because of possible COVID-19-related issues, other illnesses or injuries.

–Field Level Media

Nov 21, 2020; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) runs as he breaks the tackle of Indiana Hoosiers linebacker Aaron Casey (46) during the second quarter at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

No. 4 Ohio State shoots for CFP in Big Ten final vs. No. 14 Northwestern

Fourth-ranked Ohio State is playing for more than just its fourth straight Big Ten title vs. No. 14 Northwestern on Saturday in Indianapolis.

The Buckeyes (5-0, 5-0 Big Ten) are looking to cement their spot in the College Football Playoff despite critics contending they haven’t played enough games and weren’t impressive when they did play.

“Like I’ve been telling a lot of my teammates, we have to blow them out,” Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade said Tuesday. “We have to come to play. … We have to show the world what we can do.”

Northwestern (6-1, 6-1) knows the odds are against it, just as they were in the 2018 conference title game, which the Buckeyes won 45-24.

“I think last time we had the approach of we were happy to win the West,” Wildcats receiver Riley Lees said. “But I think our goals have superseded that, and our expectation now is to win the Big Ten championship, and that’s going to be our mindset going into this game.”

The Buckeyes beat the Wildcats 52-3 in the 2019 regular season, the first for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who was considering Northwestern when he was transferring from Georgia after the 2018 campaign.

Fields is 107-for-137 (78.1 percent) for 1,407 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, with three interceptions.

“The way that he carries himself, the way he leads that offense and the team, he makes such great decisions with the ball,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Ohio State is fourth nationally in scoring average at 46.6 points per game. The Wildcats want to keep that offense off the field by using drives like the 17-play, 64-yard march guided by quarterback Peyton Ramsey in the team’s 28-10 victory over Illinois on Saturday. Cam Porter capped that long drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.

“Peyton Ramsey’s given them a shot in the arm,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “They’ve controlled the football, they’re smart and they really don’t turn the ball over. So, when you do that, you’ve got to really be on your game. They’re not going to give you anything.”

Northwestern averages 25.3 points per game to rank 90th of 127 schools, but defensively the Wildcats are second in the nation by allowing 14.6 points a game.

“It’s very hard to run the ball on them, and they keep it all in front of them,” Day said. “They force you to work down the field.”

Day said he expects most of the 23 players who missed the Dec. 5 game at Michigan State because of COVID-19, injuries or other illnesses to be cleared to play vs. Northwestern.

The Buckeyes have had three of their past five games postponed due to COVID-19 issues, including last Saturday’s game against Michigan.

Ohio State got a waiver to play in the championship game since it did not meet the original minimum six-game requirement to be eligible.

The Buckeyes feel that by beating Northwestern they deserve a shot at their first national championship since 2014.

“This team can play with anybody in the country,” Day said. “To go undefeated and win the Big Ten championship, that speaks for itself.”

–Field Level Media

Nov 14, 2020; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini coach Lovie Smith walks on the field  during the first half against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois looks to end skid vs. No. 14 Northwestern

Illinois will visit No. 14 Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday with the hopes of winning back the Land of Lincoln Trophy for the first time since 2014.

The Wildcats’ five-game winning streak in the rivalry is the longest such streak Northwestern has ever held in the series. Last season, the Wildcats retained the trophy with a 29-10 victory on a rainy day in Champaign, Ill.

“It’s been up north for too long,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “Our guys will be pumped up and ready to go. We plan on playing our best game we’ve played all year.”

One year ago, the Wildcats entered the game winless in Big Ten play and at the bottom of the West Division standings. Now, Northwestern (5-1, 5-1) already has clinched the division and a spot in the Big Ten title game week against an opponent to be determined.

The Wildcats clinched on Saturday despite their game against Minnesota being canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Golden Gophers’ program.

The division title is the second in three years for Northwestern, as the program will become one of four teams in the conference to make the championship game multiple times since its creation in 2011.

“Sometimes Northwestern is portrayed this way or that way, having these type of athletes or those type of athletes,” the Wildcats’ Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “But at the end of the day we’re coming to play, we’re coming to win the West, we’re coming to win a Big Ten championship.”

The hallmark of the Wildcats this season has been their defense — they are sixth in the country in points allowed per game at an average of 15.3. They also have held opponents to 322.5 total yards per game, 15th-best in the country.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said he believes turnover margin has been a huge determiner of his team’s success. The Wildcats have forced 18 turnovers this season.

“I’ll go back to a lot of our games; I think it has a lot to do with turnovers and then points off of turnovers,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that has been key in most, if not all, of these games.”

The Fighting Illini (2-4, 2-4) are coming off a 35-21 loss to Iowa. Illinois jumped to a 14-point lead behind two touchdown passes from Brandon Peters, but Iowa responded by scoring 35 straight points.

At the end of the game, backup quarterback Isaiah Williams led the Fighting Illini to their final touchdown.

Smith said “there’s a place” for Williams in the offense, although he also expressed his belief in Peters.

Before the Iowa game, Illinois was on a two-game winning streak after defeating Rutgers and Nebraska.

“If you look at our play, we have a legitimate chance to win each week,” Smith said. “That hasn’t always been the case.”

–Field Level Media

Aug 31, 2018; Madison, WI, USA; Big Ten logo on yardage markers during warmups prior to the game betwee the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern-Minnesota game canceled

The Northwestern-Minnesota football scheduled for Saturday has been canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the Golden Gophers’ program.

Per Big Ten policy this season, the game will not be rescheduled and will be ruled a no-contest.

Minnesota (2-3 overall, 2-3 Big Ten), which also canceled last Saturday’s game at Wisconsin, reported 47 people (21 athletes, 26 staff members) have tested positive for the coronavirus since Nov. 19.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff continues to be our main priority,” Golden Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said. “The last couple of days have shown a decrease in positive cases, but not to the point where we are able to return to competition. We are disappointed not to be able to compete against Northwestern on Saturday, but we need to continue to focus on following all CDC and MDH guidelines and slow the spread of the virus. We will now shift our priority to doing everything possible to compete at Nebraska on December 12, and our decisions will continue to be guided by our medical experts.”

Saturday’s cancellation marks the first such result this season for Northwestern (5-1, 5-1), which sustained its first loss of the season with a 29-20 setback to Michigan State last Saturday.

The Wildcats will conclude their regular season against Illinois on Dec. 12.

–Field Level Media

Nov 28, 2020; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) runs the ball as he is tackled by Michigan State Spartans linebacker Noah Harvey (45) during the first quarter at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State hands No. 8 Northwestern its first defeat

Michigan State upset No. 8 Northwestern 29-20 at home on Saturday to all but eliminate the Wildcats’ outside chances of making the College Football Playoff.

Northwestern (5-1) came back from a 17-point second-quarter deficit for the second time this season, scoring 20 unanswered points to take the lead early in the fourth quarter.

But the Spartans (2-3) scored the last 12 points of the game, getting a pair of field goals from Matt Coghlin in the final 10:11 before recovering a fumble in the end zone as time expired.

Northwestern started strong, forcing a 3-and-out and then easily driving inside the Michigan State 20-yard line. But, on 4th-and-1 from the 18, the Spartans stopped Isaiah Bowser behind the line of scrimmage to force a turnover on downs.

Less than a minute later, Rocky Lombardi found Jalen Nailor on a pass down the far sideline for a 75-yard touchdown to go up 7-0.

The Wildcats faced another fourth down on their next possession, with Michigan State’s Shakur Brown intercepting quarterback Peyton Ramsey and returning it 54 yards to the Northwestern 11. The Wildcats’ defense held and forced a chip-shot field goal from Coghlin.

The Spartans extended their lead to 17-0 on the first play of the second quarter when Lombardi found Jayden Reed in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard TD pass.

Northwestern started its rally by driving inside the Michigan State 25-yard line on two straight possessions. The Wildcats’ Charlie Kuhbander made a pair of field goals to cut the deficit to 17-6 at the half.

Ramsey and the Wildcats came out of the break looking like a totally different team. Over four minutes and 10 plays, Northwestern drove down the field and scored when Ramsey ran into the end zone from 1 yard away.

The Wildcats went ahead for the first time 1:06 into the fourth quarter, when true freshman running back Cam Porter took a direct snap and ran it in from 3 yards out for a 20-17 advantage.

After a Northwestern fumble, Matt Coghlin kicked a 44-yard field to tie the game at 20. Coghlin hit another field goal with 3:35 left to go up 23-20.

Deep in their own territory with five seconds remaining in the game, Northwestern tried to lateral their way down the field but the sequence of back passes left the ball in the end zone, where Michigan State’s Kalon Gervin recovered to end the game with a defensive score.

-Field Level Media

Nov 21, 2020; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) passes the ball against the Wisconsin Badgers during the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

No. 11 Northwestern pushing toward playoffs vs. Michigan State

No. 11 Northwestern looks to take one step closer to securing a spot in the Big Ten Championship when it travels to play Michigan State on Saturday.

The Wildcats (5-0, 5-0) are coming off a monumental victory over Wisconsin on Saturday. The win propelled Northwestern to the top of the Big Ten West Division and into the College Football Playoff picture.

According to ESPN’s Allstate Playoff Predictor, Northwestern has a 13.9% chance to make the playoff. Those are the ninth-best odds in the nation.

The Wildcats’ road to this point has not been easy. They played with a chip on their shoulders after Joey Galloway called the team a bunch of “Rece Davises” on television prior to the game against Wisconsin. Branding themselves the “Fightin’ Rece Davises,” Northwestern outplayed the Badgers, and proceeded to call out Galloway after the game.

“I think our guys ran with it and had a little bit of fun and enjoyed it,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

While Northwestern is solidifying itself as a national contender, Michigan State and first-year head coach Mel Tucker are looking to return to the heights of a few years back.

The Spartans are 1-3 this season, with their only win coming against Michigan on Halloween. After that win, Michigan State was blown out by Iowa and Indiana and had its game last week against Maryland canceled due to a COVID outbreak in College Park.

Tucker did not name a starting quarterback on Tuesday, saying the competition is still open.

“We have to give our quarterback an opportunity to be successful,” Tucker said.

The battle is mainly between junior Rocky Lombardi and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne. Lombardi has started all four games this season but has struggled. If you take away the victory over Michigan, he has thrown seven interceptions and only three touchdowns.

Lombardi was benched midway through the second quarter against the Hoosiers two weeks ago in favor of Thorne. Thorne finished 10 of 20 for 110 yards.

Either one will be faced with a staunch challenge, as Northwestern enters with the second-most efficient defense in the country.

On the other side of the field, Northwestern is set at quarterback with graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey. Ramsey has added stability and efficiency at the position after the Wildcats quarterbacks combined to have one of the worst passing attacks in college football last season.

The transfer from Indiana is completing 62 percent of his passes and has tossed eight touchdowns. While he is not blowing away defenses with his talent, his game-management skills and burgeoning connections with pass catchers have turned the Northwestern offense into an efficient force.

“Our wide receiver core is at an all-time high right now and it’s also at an all-time high with Peyton,” wide receiver Kyric McGowan said. “We believe that he’s gonna put the ball in the right place and we just gotta trust that we’re gonna get in the right spot.”

–Field Level Media