Northwestern's Gator Bowl preparation included a Monday night trip to Dave & Busters, a Tuesday visit to the United Center for Celtics-Bulls and a Thursday stop at Pinstripes for bowling, bocce and team bonding.
“Our bowl week here is unique and awesome for recruiting,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
It’s in contrast to what Fitzgerald experienced as a player. A broken leg sidelined him for the 1996 Rose Bowl, but he recalled coach Gary Barnett’s grueling plan for the 1997 Citrus Bowl against Tennessee.
“'Barney' had us doing two-a-days,” he said. “That stunk. My senior year, we’re watching Peyton (Manning) and the boys (go easy) and we’re going two-a-day practices. We almost had a mutiny.
“So we’re going to have fun in what we’re doing. We want to peak on game day (Jan. 1).”
Fitzgerald was probably exaggerating about the mutiny part; he and Barnett remain texting buddies.
“We may have had a mutiny,” Barnett said by telephone, “but I don’t remember that.”
Barnett recalls consulting with Ohio State’s John Cooper and Penn State’s Joe Paterno and following their practice plan for the Rose Bowl. The Wildcats were sharp enough in Pasadena to lead hometown USC 32-31 before quarterback Steve Schnur threw an interception that he said “slipped” from his right hand.
So Barnett installed a similar plan the next season, though his recollection had only NU’s younger players practicing twice each day.
As Barnett pointed out, Northwestern did not have an indoor facility at the time, “so we had to get out of town to practice. We couldn’t go for two weeks and just let 'em hang out; we had to fill their day.”
Manning carved up the Wildcats in a 48-28 mauling at the Citrus, but there were extenuating circumstances. NU’s best cornerback, Hudhaifa Ismaeli, had just been kicked off the team, and tailback Darnell Autry was so flu-ridden, he took six IV bags before the game. His backup, Adrian Autry, pulled his quadriceps in pregame warmups.
Whatever the results, teams prepare differently now.
NU’s early-December practices were mostly aimed at developing younger players. The “varsity” is now going hard until all the players are released on Dec. 20 for a five-day Christmas break. They’ll fly to Jacksonville on Dec. 26 for an afternoon walk-through and then conduct full-pad practices on the 27thand 28thwith “controlled” hitting sessions and an emphasis on the kicking game on the 29thand 30th.
“I’m more comfortable in the (bowl) routine,” Fitzgerald said. “Like a lot of things, the first time you do it, you look back and think: 'What the heck was I doing?' We’ve definitely tweaked our plan. I’m probably jaded by what I experienced as a player.”
Defensive lineman Quentin Williams said he sensed that Fitzgerald gave the players “a little more time off our legs” than before last year’s bowl loss to Texas A&M.
Said guard Brian Mulroe: “The guys who have played a lot of reps, their bodies are really starting to feel better. That’s key. You want to be crisp. Now we’re knocking out some physical practices and then when we get to Jacksonville, maybe we slow it down a bit.”
Extra points: NU coaches, trainers and staff members closed out Tuesday’s practice with the annual 7-on-7 competition. Asked why he did not play, Fitzgerald replied: “I’m smarter than I look.” ... Fitzgerald on Venric Mark being named an All-America punt returner: “The football writers did it, so that’s credible. That’s legit compared to some of the other All-America teams. That one counts.”
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