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December 6, 2011EVANSTON-For all intents and purposes, the Meineke Car Care of Texas Bowl is a road game for Northwestern. Texas A&M's College Station campus is less than 100 miles from Houston, and Reliant Stadium figures to be packed with maroon-wearing Aggies on Jan. 31.
But on the other hand, the Wildcats aren't exactly strangers to Texas, or to Houston. So maybe this game could be viewed as sort of a "home-away-from-home" game for the Wildcats.
"If last year playing at Rice is any indication, the way that the great fan base that we have, the great alumni base in Houston supported us, and the way that our fans travel to our bowl games and destinations, there should be a great purple showing down in Houston," said head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
This will mark the third time in the last four years that Northwestern has played a bowl game in the Lone Star State -- the Cats also played in the 2008 Alamo in San Antonio, and the 2011 TicketCity in Dallas. Players Demetrius Dugar, Will Hampton, Christian Jones, Venric Mark and David Nwabuisi all hail from the Houston area.
Fitzgerald boasts that he's been to the city more than 100 times over the years. He cut his teeth as a recruiter in and around Houston, working the area as a Northwestern assistant before turning the reins over to linebackers coach Randy Bates when he took over as head man in 2006.
"You tell me what two towns you gotta go to, I can tell you without a GPS," Fitzgerald said.
It's no accident that eight Wildcats on the roster come from Texas, more than any state besides Illinois and Ohio. It has long been a fertile recruiting ground for the program, and Northwestern dedicates three assistants to recruiting the state, as many as Ohio and fewer than only the Chicago area.
Fitzgerald and Bates, especially, have built strong relationships with high school coaches in the area. Fitzgerald, who will attend the Houston Touchdown Club banquet on Thursday night, says that this bowl trip will offer the program an opportunity to further those relationships by inviting coaches to practices.
"We were excited, from a standout of exposure to those coaches, to maybe get a chance (for them) to come out and watch a practice," he said. "To come out and watch us in their backyard, it will be a lot of fun. (It will) get us a chance to get around those guys."
And strengthening bonds with a coach today could mean the difference in landing one of his players in the future.
Northwestern's excitement over this Meineke Car Car of Texas Bowl bid extends beyond the coaching staff and the Houstonians, however. The Wildcats know how fortunate they are to be playing in the sixth bowl in the Big Ten pecking order even though they finished tied for eighth in the conference standings. Fitzgerald used the word "excited" six times in his opening statement at the bowl press conference on Sunday.
The one drawback for the non-Houston Wildcats is hearing about the virtues of Clutch City from those that call it home.
"They like to brag out it, and everyone else is getting sick of hearing about it," said quarterback Dan Persa, who comes from Pennsylvania and quickly added a "just kidding."
What do those Houston Wildcats say about their hometown?
"That it's the greatest place on earth," said Brian Peters, an Ohioan using a little sarcasm. "Something along those lines."
If Northwestern is able to get its first bowl win since 1949 there, everyone in purple, regardless of where they are from, will feel the same way.