ANN ARBOR — Earlier this season, an unorthodox practice emerged for the Northwestern football team.
College football teams typically schedule pregame meetings and pregame meals, but Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald scheduled a mandatory nap into his team’s game-day itinerary before Northwestern’s Oct. 20 game against Nebraska.
At the time, quarterback Kain Colter approved of the schedule amendment.
"We'll wake up, have our pregame meal, do our mental things, and then have a mandatory nap," Colter told the Chicago Tribune. "Those hotel beds are really comfortable, and the pillows are soft. [Then] we'll come down refreshed and ready to kick some butt."
Given that Northwestern will face Michigan in a noon start, one would wonder if the early start would allow the Wildcats to carve out any time for shut-eye before kickoff.
Clinical studies have proven that a little extra shuteye has its health benefits — on its Web site, the National Sleep Foundation lists the benefits of napping, including restored alertness, enhanced performance, and a reduction in mistakes and accidents. Yet Northwestern was unable to prove any direct correlation between a cat nap and a Big Ten win as Nebraska took advantage of Northwestern’s fourth-quarter unraveling and defeated the Wildcats 29-28.
After opening the season 5-0, Northwestern (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) has split its last four games and is a game behind Michigan and Nebraska in the Legends Division standings. The Wildcats have the opportunity to throw a wrench into Michigan’s narrowing Big Ten title hopes when it faces the Wolverines (6-3, 4-1), who may or may not have the services of quarterback Denard Robinson and who will platoon Fitzgerald Toussaint and Thomas Rawls in the offensive backfield. And who, as of late, have lamented their defensive struggles — despite leading the nation in passing defense.
“We aren’t near where we can be,” Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. “We’re playing some decent football but it’s encouraging to think, wow, we’re still making some mistakes and think about how much better we can be. So we’ve been fortunate thus far in the season, but at other times it’s cost us and we’re just continuing to get better.”
But coach Fitzgerald isn’t counting the proverbial chickens before they crack open their eggs — even if a win over the Wolverines could also improve Northwestern’s bowl-bid prospects, and even if he said earlier this week that he expects Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson to play today.
“We’ve worked hard at that the last week, and we’re focused on that right now,” Fitzgerald said. “But we’ve not yet put together 60 minutes of football. Our focus is where it always is, but it’s more coming out of the bye that we’ve got to maintain our focus, play very clean football, and find a way to win.”
Still despite its recent stumbles, Northwestern leads the Big Ten in red zone efficiency, going 32 of 35 inside the 20-yard line with 22 touchdowns and 10 field goals, and boasts one of the Big Ten’s more prominent offensive weapons in running back Venric Mark, who is 10th in the nation in rushing, averaging 119.67 yards, and is sixth in all-purpose rushing yards (1,657).
“There’s a lot to be said with the personnel,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “There’s a lot to be said with the mindset that they want to have as a team. With Venric Mark, he’s a big-play threat every time he touches the football, the same with Kain Colter. And I think in the throwing game, the ball’s getting down the field, and it’s more vertical.”
In other words: Don’t sleep on Northwestern.
Contact Rachel Lenzi at:email@example.com,419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.