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NU's Fitzgerald seeking big plays in passing game
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/16/2008 12:03 AM

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In C.J. Bacher's first 18 starts at Northwestern, the senior didn't have a single game in which he finished with zeros in both the touchdown and interception departments.

In other words, Bacher always made something happen one way or another.

But in Bacher's 19th and 20th starts - also known as Northwestern's last two games - he hasn't posted a touchdown or an interception.

Considering the Wildcats own a 7-0 record when he doesn't throw a pick (but a 4-9 mark when he does), you'd think everyone in Evanston would be giddy about this development.

But since coaches are, well, coaches, they're always pushing for more. They'd like for Bacher and the offense to start producing more big plays.

After the Wildcats had just one passing gain for more than 18 yards last week against Southern Illinois in a steady rain, the coaches are emphasizing big plays as NU (3-0) prepares for Saturday's 11 a.m. home game against Ohio (0-3).

"We didn't have the typical amount of big plays that have as an offense on Saturday," said coach Pat Fitzgerald. "Today's college football game is all about big plays.

"Now, I believe C.J.'s doing a great job managing the game. I thought he took what the defense gave him. I thought Southern had a good plan to take away our deep throws.

"Obviously, having better weather on Saturday will hopefully help us throw the ball a little bit more vertical and make some more big plays."

Bacher, while obviously intrigued by the call for more bombs, reiterated that he's happy with the "managing the game" mantra instilled in him by new offensive coordinator Mick McCall.

"We've got enough athletes at receiver and at running back that a short pass can turn into a big play," Bacher said. "Guys like Tyrell (Sutton) and Eric (Peterman) are going to be trying to make big plays after the catch or after they get the handoff. I'm excited to watch them play."

If Bacher maintains his current pace the rest of the regular season, he'll finish with 2,500 yards, 12 touchdowns and 3 interceptions while completing 61 percent of his passes.

Last year, Bacher led the Big Ten in total offense as he finished with 3,656 yards, 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions while hitting 61 percent of his passes.

Which Bacher does Fitzgerald prefer? Sounds like the current model.

"He's been doing a great job of taking what the defense gives him and not trying to force things that aren't there," Fitzgerald said. "We need to make more big plays, but we don't need to do it by sacrificing 'managing the game' and by making poor decisions."

Ignore the record: Ohio comes to Northwestern as one of the nine Football Bowl Subdivision teams with an 0-3 record, but Pat Fitzgerald considers that mark nonsense.

"Ohio is three plays away from being undefeated," he said. "If (our players relax this week), then they're not watching any film. All you have to do is pop on the tape and it's pretty evident to see we're playing a good football team."

Ohio lost at Wyoming 21-20 on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass. The Bobcats led Ohio State 14-12 going into the fourth quarter before falling 26-14.

Then, last week, Ohio rolled up 513 total yards on MAC favorite Central Michigan but fell 31-28.

Ward commits: According to Rivals.com, Northwestern landed its first four-star recruit in 12 years when Providence tackle Patrick Ward gave the Wildcats an oral commitment Sunday.

The 6-foot-6, 295-pound Ward is the son of Hinsdale South graduate Brian Ward, who started 8 games on Illinois' offensive line from 1983-85.

He's the first four-star prospect to commit to Northwestern coming out of high school (as opposed to transferring in from Notre Dame) since Napoleon Harris signed in February 1997.

Polling place: Northwestern received a total of 10 points in the latest ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll and 4 points in the most recent Associated Press Top 25.

This marks the first time the Wildcats have earned votes in both polls since the end of the 2005 season, when they had 2 points in each poll after losing the Sun Bowl to UCLA.

How has Northwestern become so popular?

"Maybe (my sons) Jack and Ryan voted, I don't know," said NU coach Pat Fitzgerald. "That's insignificant to our football program."