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July 24, 2013

Cats aim to live up to great expectations



CHICAGO-On the night of December 1, 2012, the lights were bright in Indianapolis. Wisconsin scored touchdown after touchdown en route to a 70-31 drubbing of Nebraska and a Big Ten title.

Hundreds of miles away, Tyler Scott was forced to watch on television as he came to grips with a difficult truth: Northwestern was mere minutes away from earning the right to play on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.

"It's always tough when you know you could be there," Scott said on Wednesday at Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days at the Chicago Hilton.

And oh, how close Northwestern was in 2012.

Sure, the Wildcats escaped with narrow wins over Syracuse and Vanderbilt, but those weren't Big Ten squads. The truth of the matter was just over five minutes separated Northwestern from an undefeated Big Ten season.

Scott, the Big Ten's leading returning sack artist, won't be quick to forget.

"We know that we were that close in so many games," Scott said. "It's just making a play here and there. And that's just focusing longer and for one more play and coming up big, whether it be making a sack, making a touchdown [or] making a field goal."

Fresh off a 10-3 season in 2012, there is reason to believe Northwestern has the ability to make those necessary sacks or touchdowns. With Ohio State and Wisconsin replacing Penn State and Indiana on Northwestern's schedule, there is a smaller margin of error. Yet despite the distinctly harder schedule, the players said they are ready to handle the pressure that often accompanies a winning program.

That mentality certainly showed on Wednesday as Pat Fitzgerald took the podium and outlined the goals for the upcoming season.

"We're not satisfied with just going to bowl games anymore," Fitzgerald said. "That's not acceptable. That's the expectation. … Now obviously we raised the bar a year ago from winning a game and getting that monkey off our back, but at the end of the day the expectation is to win championships."

When this type of confidence is exuded at a spring practice on a morning in early March, it carries a certain amount of credibility. When the same is shown in late July in front of hundreds of reporters, the expectations and pressure become much more real.

Should Northwestern survive a difficult non-conference slate and remain undefeated when Ohio State comes to town on Oct. 5, the stakes will only rise.

The last time Northwestern entered a season with high expectations, the Wildcats fell miserably short. The 2011 team compiled a 6-7 record that included a loss to Army.

But while the Cats were unable to live up to the hype in 2011, Northwestern's premiere players are certain the past won't repeat itself.

"[It's a] totally different team," senior quarterback Kain Colter said. "Nobody knows how the season is going to go, but all you can do now is prepare the best you can and let the chips fall where they may. We have a lot of guys coming back, a lot more experience.

"I think the guys are really eager to prove themselves. It's gonna be a totally different year than 2011."

Senior running back Venric Mark said the way the team has spent the offseason preparing for the 2013 season is reason enough to believe that this year will end with more success than the 2011 campaign.

"That's been our main focus: preparation," Mark said. "I can honestly say I love being a part of this team we have right now. The team chemistry is there, the depth is there."

And the leadership is there.

Fitzgerald might be a great motivator, but he's certainly not the only one in Evanston. As older players, Mark and Scott both realize the responsibility they have to lead the team by example. And Mark is the type of guy who likes to talk when he pulls on his cleats.

"I'm a very outgoing guy, especially on the field," Mark said. "I'm very verbal. And I just try to show the younger guys that football is played with pads and helmets, not through the media, not through hype.

"Between the white lines when the whistle is blown and the smell of that grass: that's where football is played."

The message seems to be taking root. The whole tone of the program has changed since 2011, Scott said. Optional summer workouts now have 100-percent attendance and the team is hungrier than ever. This is a group of guys who truly believe that they can reach Pasadena.

No amount of leadership can completely prevent a disappointing year, but the Cats seem to be positioned to succeed.

They're also ready.

"We know where we want to go," Mark said, "we know what we want to do and that's what we're gonna do."



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