Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald knew that this day was possible for Indiana.
He has seen program turnarounds as both a player and a coach for the Wildcats.
And this summer at the Big Ten’s football media day, Fitzgerald acknowledged that Tom Allen had Indiana on the brink of a breakout season.
“I look at Tom (Allen) right now at IU,” Fitzgerald said on BTN during Big Ten Media Day. “They’re right there, right? They’re right there. I lived that as a player. We were right there.”
Getting there and staying there are two different animals.
And Fitzgerald has seen that too at Northwestern. This year, in fact.
Fitzgerald might consider a career in fortune telling after football, because he also talked this summer about how delicate success can be for programs like Northwestern and Indiana once things get headed in the right direction.
“Once you have that break through, Gary Barnett (the 1995 Northwestern head coach) gave that analogy of priming the pump,” Fitzgerald said. “You keep priming that pump and priming it, you don’t know how close the water is, but if you stop that water goes all the way back down. But once you get that water flowing you can move it with your finger.”
After Fitzgerald’s Wildcats won a Big Ten West title in 2018 by three games, already Northwestern (1-6 overall, 0-5 Big Ten) is furiously priming the pump once again.
And now it’s Allen’s Hoosiers that appear to be on the verge of getting the proverbial water flowing, but don’t think for a second that he is fooled by any of this.
Whether it’s his own team’s success or the Wildcats’ slide in 2019, Allen recognizes how programs such as IU and Northwestern have to fight every week to survive.
“Do not be deceived by the (Northwestern’s) record,” Allen said on Monday. “I just pointed out to our staff, look at who they played. You look at the defenses they played and how good they are and the teams they played.”
Now in his fourth season in the Big Ten and third full season as a head coach, Allen knows that the difference between winning and losing in this league can be razor thin.
After too many close call losses to count in recent years for Indiana, Allen has been through seasons like Northwestern is having in 2019.
And perhaps like a wounded animal, he knows that despite the record, the Wildcats are not to be taken lightly.
“Even a year ago, they won a bunch of close games and then lost some close games, and then things happen,” Allen continued. “You get in situations where you lose a little bit of this or a little bit of that. So to me, very dangerous football team. They’re the defending West champions in our conference, and I’ve got a ton of respect for their head coach.”
Allen didn’t hesitate on Monday to gush with admiration for Northwestern’s head coach.
It turns out that Fitzgerald’s seemingly unprovoked comments this summer regarding Allen and this IU program were not random.
The two have developed a bond over the last few years, and Allen’s respect for the now 14th year head coach at Northwestern couldn’t be more clear.
“One of the guys, ever since I came to this league, that has always just taken time to encourage, to challenge, to help — I mean, just — he’s a guy I can text and ask questions to, Allen said of Fitzgerald on Monday.
“He’s one of the guys I always confided in and things like that for a variety of things, and he’s just genuine, he’s tough, and he’s just done a phenomenal job building that program. I have absolute, complete respect for Pat Fitzgerald and what he’s done at Northwestern.”
Fitzgerald was watching as Allen’s Hoosiers claimed their sixth win in eight games on the road at Nebraska, and he didn’t hold back in his praise for the IU head coach at his own press conference this week.
“Tom is a great guy and someone that I have the utmost respect for,” Fitzgerald said on Tuesday. “To see the job that he’s done, you could see it in the emotion after the game (against Nebraska). You feel happy for a guy that’s worked so hard. I’m really happy for him and his program.”
Fitzgerald has been successful against Indiana during his tenure leading Northwestern, compiling a 6-1 record against the Hoosiers.
Saturday’s contest will be the first meeting between the programs since Allen took over as head coach in 2017, and Fitzgerald isn’t about to let his past success against Indiana impact his preparation for this weekend.
“Coach Allen has completely changed their attitude and their mindset. What’s history is history.”
Of course Fitzgerald knows better than most that history is history. Even a 2018 Big Ten West title feels like ancient history as the Wildcats have struggled with quarterback issues and a brutal schedule.
“They’ve had some quarterback challenges, and that’s been an issue, and that’s a key position,” Allen said. “They had a guy that was pretty steady there for a long time, did a phenomenal job for him and led them last year. That’s been a question mark for them.”
The Northwestern and Indiana ties carry through beyond the coaches to the Wildcat quarterbacks.
T.J. Green was lost for the season in their opener against Stanford. He is the son of former IU quarterback Trent Green, and he had filled in for struggling starter Hunter Johnson in that contest.
The Wildcats have rotated in multiple inexperienced backups at the quarterback position since losing Green, but Johnson came with higher expectations than the rest.
A Brownsburg, Indiana product, Johnson was a former five star recruit that transferred from Clemson to Northwestern in 2018.
Johnson has only completed 48 percent of his passes and he has four interceptions to just one touchdown in 2019.
But Johnson has also had a lot more than football on his mind, and he hasn’t played since Northwestern’s Sept. 28 loss at Wisconsin as he has dealt with his mother’s battle with breast cancer.
The Wildcats haven’t had a touchdown pass since Johnson’s last appearance.
Now, the Indiana native and former IU recruiting target appears to be ready to return for Saturday night’s game against the Hoosiers. Fitzgerald has not declared a starter for the game, but with junior Aidan Smith, a Fort Wayne, Indiana product himself, struggling mightily (47.5 completion percentage, 6 interceptions, 1 touchdown), a change appears likely.
While he hasn’t been strong out of the gate, Johnson has significant talent and would no doubt give the struggling Wildcats’ offense a completely different threat. His presence would change the outlook for this weekend’s game.
And so it goes for programs like Northwestern and Indiana, week by week.
Allen’s crew has seen a trickle of water from the pump. Maybe, just maybe, it will flow freely for years to come.
But as it stands right now, Indiana is also merely inches away from seeing the water go all the way back down.
And that’s a reality that both coaches know all too well.
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