Chengelis: Windy City grit has Wildcats soaring

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Northwestern linebacker Nate Hall (32) celebrates with linebacker Paddy Fisher (42) after Fisher's interception during the third quarter of the Wildcats' 42-7 win over Illinois on Saturday.

Northwestern clearly moved on from an early season loss to Duke and a 2-3 start that generated plenty of criticism toward Pat Fitzgerald and his program.

The Wildcats lost back-to-back Big Ten games to Wisconsin and Penn State in that stretch but they refocused and finished the season with a flourish and a seven-game winning streak, including a 42-7 dismantling of Illinois last Saturday.

They were 9-3 overall, 7-2 Big Ten.

“This is a pretty attractive team,” Fitzgerald told The Chicago Tribune. “We’re a pretty hot team right now.”

Fitzgerald made clear that the winning streak came about because the team was willing to work harder and ignore the critics.

“This doesn’t happen by accident,” he told the Tribune. "There were a lot of people taking shots at (our players). There were a lot of people taking shots at our program, taking shots at the coaching staff.

"I thought (our players) answered that by shutting the noise off and doing the only thing you can in those circumstances: Go to work. The Chicago work ethic. Roll your sleeves up and go to work. That's what they did and that's why we're Chicago's Big Ten team."

Purdue stepping up

Two losses by three points separated Purdue, under first-year coach Jeff Brohm, from being an 8-4 team versus its 6-6 record.

The Boilermakers lost 14-12 to Rutgers and 25-24 to Nebraska, two winnable games that would have given Brohm a spectacular first season in the Big Ten.

Purdue wrapped up the season with a 31-24 victory over Indiana for the Old Oaken Bucket. That gave the Boilermakers their six wins to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2012.

“I know as a coach, I’d come into the office and bang my head against the wall just for about five minutes to get myself tougher because it wasn’t easy,” Brohm told the Indianapolis Star. “They were two losses, yes, I feel we should’ve won but that sometimes happens.”

It takes time

For the first time since 2012, Illinois finished winless in the Big Ten. The Illini were 2-10 overall under second-year coach Lovie Smith.

Smith told reporters after the loss to Northwestern last Saturday that it takes time to build a program that is dominated by young players.

“You have to look at what we’re talking about, 15, 16 (freshman starters),” Smith told reporters. “Were you expecting a national championship? Probably not. We knew we had to rebuild our program, and that’s what we’ve been doing. And that’s what I think we will continue to do.”

What’s next for Nebraska?

It certainly looks like Scott Frost, who quarterbacked Nebraska to a share of the 1997 national championship, could potentially take over the head coach job of his alma mater.

Tom Osborne, the legendary former Nebraska coach, told the Lincoln Journal Star that while he has not reached out to Frost to encourage him to return to the Cornhuskers after the firing of Mike Riley, that he does think he is a great coach.

Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos confirmed to the paper that he's been in contact with Frost's representatives. Frost has coached UCF to an 11-0 season and will host No. 20 Memphis for the American Conference Championship on Saturday. There could be other programs interested in Frost.

“He’s getting a lot of attention from several other schools,” Moos told the Journal Star. “Scott is someone I am considering, but I’m being very sensitive to that fact that he’s still coaching a team and he’s having a heck of a run.”

Twitter: @chengelis