The Northwestern Wildcats understand the early-season stakes.
They enter Thursday night’s season-opener at Purdue with eight straight wins, the longest active streak among power conference teams. They’ve also won eight straight against Big Ten foes. And if they beat the Boilermakers, the Wildcats will match their longest streaks since the 1995 Rose Bowl season.
But coach Pat Fitzgerald and his players seem about as disinterested in the milestones as they are with the fact they were left out of the preseason Top 25. They are focused on long-term goals.
“We’re never going to be sexy in the preseason,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d rather go out and earn it anyway. I’d rather have those things earned on the back end than talked about on the friend end. Hype doesn’t matter. Action, that’s all that matters.”
There are other explanations for being overlooked, of course.
Northwestern plays in the same division as No. 4 Wisconsin, a five-time participant in the Big Ten title game. The Wildcats also have a propensity for slow starts, going 2-3 last season and 1-3 in 2016 before winning six of the last nine.
Starting quarterback Clayton Thorson is trying to return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in less than 10 months, and Fitzgerald has played coy about who his opening-day starter will be.
Plus, they’re playing a team full of momentum after winning its last three in 2017 and the opener has every bit as much meaning for Purdue.
“It’s a chance to see how we measure up and what we can do, and it would be great if we could find a way to win,” second-year coach Jeff Brohm said. “Every game is a one-game season for us, but this is an extremely important game. It’s the first game of the year. It’s at home. It’s a conference game and we need to try to find a way to win.”
The Boilermakers have lost four in a row in the series — and the Wildcats are eager to show everyone how wrong they are.
“We don’t always get the preseason recognition that we maybe deserve,” Thorson said. “But we haven’t played as a team yet either and that’s why the preseason rankings are just, trash.”
Fitzgerald and Brohm have both been tight-lipped about their quarterback plans, hoping to keep the defenses guessing. Thorson has started 39 consecutive games, tied with Washington’s Jake Browning for the longest active streak in the Bowl Subdivision. If he doesn’t play, expect junior TJ Green to get the nod. Brohm is choosing between David Blough, who started five times last year before dislocating his right ankle, or Elijah Sindelar, who made eight starts and played the final 3½ games with a torn ACL in his left knee after getting hurt against Northwestern. The two coaches expect to see both quarterbacks.
“I think we just have to be aware who is in there from a play-calling standpoint but also who is in there so that our guys know on defense,” Brohm said.
If Thorson does start, it will mark the first time he’s lined up without Justin Jackson, Northwestern’s career rushing leader, in the backfield. Thorson isn’t fretting, though. He’ll be handing off to sophomore Jeremy Larkin, who showed promise last season and appears ready to emerge as the Wildcats’ workhorse back.
Last year, the Boilermakers asked an experienced defense to keep games close. This year, after losing some key stalwarts to graduation, Brohm is asking new guys with plenty of experience to fill the voids. So far, he’s been impressed by the play of fifth-year seniors Tim Cason and Antonio Blackmon at cornerback.
“They have done a good job,” Brohm said. “And then with the two youngsters, those guys also all have an opportunity to get in there in certain situations and I think we’ll utilize them all.”
TURN OUT THE LIGHTS
The Boilermakers are just 2-8 in night games at Ross-Ade Stadium with the two wins coming over Mid-American Conference foes — Toledo in 1994 and Ohio last season. Purdue is 6-6-2 all-time on Thursdays and hasn’t played a regular-season game on Thursday since 1904. This is the first time the Boilermakers have ever played on a Thursday night.