EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) -Pat Fitzgerald still has his game face on. That look in his eyes gives the impression he's ready to barrel forward, knock down anything in his path and make a tackle.
On the sidelines now instead of on the field, his energy is nonstop as he races to tap a player on the helmet or pads after a nice play.
Once part of Northwestern's best run of football as a two-time All-American linebacker in 1995 and 1996, Fitzgerald is a winner again as a coach - less than three years after taking over at his alma mater following the sudden and tragic death of one of his mentors, Randy Walker.
Fitzgerald's had a whirlwind year. At age 33, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, will be honored at a dinner next month and inducted next year. And in his third season as coach, he led Northwestern to just the fifth nine-victory season in school history and only its seventh bowl appearance.
``We still got some unfinished business. We put ourselves in position for No. 10 and there has been one football team in the history of Northwestern football - and that was the team I played on in 1995 - that's won 10 games,'' Fitzgerald said.
``The difference is that that 10-win team didn't get the bowl win and now we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us.''
Minus one of its top players, that 10-win team lost in the Rose Bowl to Southern California. Fitzgerald missed the game with a broken leg but returned the following season to help the Wildcats win their second straight Big Ten title - this one shared - and go to the Citrus Bowl, where they were beaten by Peyton Manning and Tennessee.
Under Walker, the Wildcats also shared the conference title in 2000 and made three bowl games, losing in the Alamo, Motor City and the 2005 Sun Bowl, which turned out to be his final game.
After Walker died of a heart attack on June 29, 2006, Fitzgerald spoke at his memorial service, saying the invitation to share with mourners what Walker meant to him and the team was the greatest honor of his life.
Several days later, he was hired as head coach at age 31 without any previous experience running a program. A 4-8 first season was followed by last year's 6-6 finish that did not land the Wildcats a bowl.
), the Wildcats started and finished strong, overcoming some bumps along the way to go 9-3 and 5-3 in the league.
They had one-sided losses to Michigan State and Ohio State at home and a tough defeat at Indiana when quarterback C.J. Bacher got hurt late in the game.
The Wildcats also dealt with injuries to their top two tailbacks, Tyrell Sutton and Omar Conteh, and linebacker Malcolm Arrington. After missing two games, Bacher returned from a hamstring injury to lead a win at Michigan and another against Illinois last Saturday.
``For four and five years, I don't know if there has been a group of men in their age group that has been through as much as they have been through,'' Fitzgerald said of his seniors, who also had to cope with Walker's death and the ensuing transition.
``To see how much they've handled it, they've grown from it, they've matured and really, as you look at them right now, they're young men that are prepared for life,'' Fitzgerald added.
``We are taking what coach Fitz has done for the program, just the building blocks and the foundation of where hopefully the program is about to go and I think that's what it shows,'' defensive back Brendan Smith said.
eterman and Rasheed Ward.
``You look at my five years here and Eric's four years here. There has just been so much we've had to respond to as a program and as a team,'' Bacher said. ``And it has set us up for being able to respond this season.
``Each time we lost a game, we came back strong the next game and been able to pull out a victory. That's been a huge them for us. We really embraced that.''
Maybe as one final way to leave the program, Bacher and his departing teammates can really do something rare - win the bowl game. Northwestern's only bowl victory came in its very first one, way back in 1949 when the Wildcats beat California 20-14 in the Rose Bowl.
``This is a significant opportunity in our program's history,'' Fitzgerald said. ``An opportunity to be the second team to win 10 games, an opportunity to win our first bowl game since 1949. ... I think it's pretty crystal clear what's in front of us.''

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