Well-rested Northwestern in contention in Legends Division


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:rlenzi@the­blade.com,419-724-6510 or on Twit­ter @RLen­ziBlade.