After coaching Northwestern to its first bowl victory in 64 years, Pat Fitzgerald has his sights set on loftier goals - like competing for a Big Ten championship.
The 22nd-ranked Wildcats try to take their first step toward meeting growing expectations as they open at California in the Golden Bears’ first game under new coach Sonny Dykes on Saturday night.
Fitzgerald, in his eighth year at the helm, has helped usher in success not seen at Northwestern since his days as a linebacker. Last year’s 10-3 effort marked the school’s first 10-win season since Fitzgerald helped it reach the 1996 Rose Bowl.
The Wildcats’ 34-20 Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State - Fitzgerald’s 50th career victory - was the program’s second bowl victory and first since a 20-14 final over Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
The result is a Northwestern team, with its first preseason ranking since 2001, that doesn’t exactly look the part of underdog anymore.
“We’re not satisfied with just going to bowl games anymore. That’s not acceptable. That’s the expectation,” said Fitzgerald, whose team had been defeated in postseason contests in each of the previous four seasons. “At the end of the day the expectation is to win championships.”
Northwestern boasts the Big Ten’s leading returning rusher in Venric Mark, who racked up 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. His 6.0 yards per carry ranked fourth in the FBS among qualifying players, and he also presents a threat on special teams after returning two punts for scores in 2012.
Fitzgerald will again employ a two-quarterback system, using Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter. Siemian was the more prolific passer, throwing for 1,312 yards, while the more athletic Colter ran for 894 and 12 TDs.
“What’s the old coaches’ (saying) - if you have two quarterbacks you don’t have one? I think we’ve proved that wrong,” Fitzgerald said. “The only way that works is by being an unselfish guy. By being a team-first player. And both Kain and Trevor are that way.”
Cal is beginning its first season with Dykes as coach after firing Jeff Tedford following a 3-9 mark last season. Tedford had been in charge since 2002 and was the winningest coach in school history, but his tenure turned sour as the Golden Bears went 15-22 over the last three seasons with one bowl appearance.
Dykes was 22-15 in three years at Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs led the FBS with 51.5 points per game last year while going 9-3.
He’ll bring his no-huddle attack to Cal, which finished 10th in the Pac-12 with 23.0 points per game last year and was held to 17 or fewer points six times.
Dykes is putting the offense in the hands of freshman Jared Goff, who won the quarterback competition in training camp. The highly touted Goff has been with the team since spring practice after graduating high school early.
“I’m honored to get the chance to start for Cal and am looking forward to going out and helping the team win,” he said.
While the Golden Bears lost receiver Keenan Allen to the NFL, they return some big-play potential in the backfield with Brendan Bigelow. The junior had only 44 carries last year, but averaged 9.8 yards and was particularly impressive in a loss at Ohio State with touchdown runs of 81 and 59 yards.
Cal’s defense, which surrendered an average of 47.8 points during the final four contests, will be switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment. It should benefit from the return of linebacker Khairi Fortt and cornerback Stefan McClure, who both missed last season due to knee injuries.
Northwestern, which has opened each of the last three seasons with road victories, is the first of seven ranked opponents for Cal this year.