Even as one of the youngest coaches in the country, Pat Fitzgerald still follows the same conventions as peers twice his age.
Records? Milestones? Never heard of 'em.
The 5-0 start that gave Northwestern its first top 25 ranking in four years? Even that isn't anything to crow about. It's already Fitzgerald's third time in his seven years coaching the Wildcats that he has won his first five games.
Northwestern has a chance for its first 6-0 start since the Kennedy administration with a win on Saturday at Penn State. It isn't a fact that has been mentioned inside the locker room this week, but…
"But that has a good ring to it," Fitzgerald said Tuesday.
That's because Fitzgerald, even at age 37, certainly knows his history. A win Saturday would put the Wildcats at 2-0 in Big Ten play. The last three times that happened – 1995, 1996 and 2000 – they won at least a share of the Big Ten title. Fitzgerald was an All-America linebacker on those first two squads.
The Wildcats don't have anyone on defense of Fitzgerald's caliber this year, however. Once again, Northwestern has been winning games by running out to big leads and then just managing to hold on in the second half.
They unveiled a new wrinkle for the start of Big Ten play last week, lining up quarterback Kain Colter all over the field, including many times in slot as a receiver.
Colter was named Big Ten Co-offensive Player of the Week after he racked up 292 yards of total offense, catching nine passes and scoring four touchdowns on the ground against Indiana.
Trevor Siemian took over at quarterback while Colter was busy moving around.
"I don't think I'd say he surprises me – it just impresses me," Fitzgerald said of Colter. "He's such a competitor. He absolutely loves to play the game. (The coaches) would ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing taking him off the field?' Him and Trevor are in our best 11. So we'll continue to build things around his skillset.
"Frankly, we have a lot of fun with it. … We're having a blast."
No doubt. The Wildcats are undefeated and they set a school record with 704 yards of total offense against the Hoosiers.
Fitzgerald, who was twice named the country' best defensive player, had plenty of praise for Penn State's own linebacker corps. Especially reigning national player of the week, Michael Mauti.
"He's terrific with his key read," Fitzgerald said. "He has great eyes. He's very instinctual. He finds the football. He's overcome two major (knee) injuries, and that's the hallmark of what makes him special.
"As an outsider looking in, the way he's responded to adversity is what makes him special. He's a complete player."
Fitzgerald has a much more direct connection to Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, who served as the defensive coordinator at Northwestern during those glory years.
Not only did Vanderlinden influence him greatly in his playing days, he also helped Fitzgerald start his coaching career, bringing him on as a graduate assistant when Vanderlinden was the head coach at Maryland.
"I have the utmost respect for Vandy. As a teacher and as a man," Fitzgerald said. "I'm forever indebted to that and for that. … Outside of this week, we're very close. This week we're competitors, obviously, but I love him like a second father."
Fitzgerald said that safety Ibrahim Campbell (shoulder) and receiver Christian Jones (elbow) should both play on Saturday.
Campbell's health is particularly key for the Wildcats as the best defensive back in an otherwise struggling secondary.