Oftentimes, teams push back against the notion that they pay attention to what others say about them. But it’s hard not to hear the outside noise, no matter how hard they try.
Players’ voices are often amplified through social media, which means negative comments can be heard beyond the confines of a Zoom call.
Last Tuesday, Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler didn’t mince words when speaking about the Wildcats — he called Northwestern awful, declared the color purple disgusting, claimed he didn’t know where Evanston was and even called the Wildcats the Fighting Illini’s “little brother.”
If his players hadn’t heard the comments on their own time, coach Pat Fitzgerald made sure that they did.
“It was sent to me by somebody and I made sure it was conveyed to the guys, very crystal clear, the level of disrespect,” Fitzgerald said. “But, that’s okay. That is what it is.”
NU has heard the comments from those outside the walls of Ryan Fieldhouse. Instead of clapping back and making more headlines, the Cats have responded through their play and embracing those who have doubted them.
The “little brothers” dominated their rival Illinois 28-10 after Eifler spoke negatively about the program. A few weeks earlier, the Fighting Rece Davises silenced Joey Galloway with a commanding 17-7 win over then-No. 10 Wisconsin.
“I’ll be quite frank with you,” Fitzgerald said after beating Illinois. “Our guys get called out being called ‘little brother’ this week. If anybody would like to say anything derogatory to our players, please do so repeatedly this week. I would greatly appreciate it.”
Ask and you shall receive, Fitz.
Cornerback Shaun Wade and Ohio State have their eyes set on the College Football Playoff. A win could grant them a spot for the fourth time in seven years. So Wade told reporters the Buckeyes need to blow the Cats out on Saturday to make a statement to the committee.
But Wade isn’t the only person overlooking NU as an opponent. There are media members across the country who believe No. 16 Iowa is a better team than the Cats, despite the fact that Fitzgerald’s team beat them 20-17 head-to-head.
If all of that wasn’t enough, NU comes into Saturday’s game as an almost three-touchdown underdog against Ohio State.
“We welcome it,” senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “It is what it is, to be honest. When you got that purple and white on, that N across your chest, most of the time you’re going to be deemed an underdog. We embrace it and we come to work.”
This team has bigger goals than it did two years ago and that seems to be all the motivation the Cats need for Saturday’s game.
According to senior wide receiver Riley Lees, the team was just happy to be in the Big Ten Championship in 2018. That is not the case this year.
Junior cornerback Greg Newsome said the game two years ago taught him to not overcomplicate things. Instead, he said it was important to just play the brand of football that got the team to Indianapolis in the first place. Senior linebacker Blake Gallagher spoke about taking advantage of the second opportunity to play in this game — one this team has worked the past two years to get another shot at.
Fitzgerald said he didn’t need additional motivation from “bulletin board material” when he was a player. He joked that Gary Barnett used to print t-shirts to get his guys pumped up and Fitzgerald would cut the shirts to show off his arms.
“When the ball goes up in the air, all that stuff doesn’t matter,” Fitzgerald said. “You know what I mean? But gosh, it’s great for blogs, and it’s got to be unbelievable for Twitter.”
Every team finds motivation in different ways, whether internal or external. The Cats have definitely enjoyed the bulletin board material so far this season. But regardless of the outside noise, Fitzgerald made it clear he doesn’t care what doubters might say about his program.
“If I got to do different things to motivate my guys, I don’t care. I’ll do it,” Fitzgerald said. “But it doesn’t mean anything to me. I think you earn respect with the way you play.”
“And, you know, I think our guys are maybe having a little bit of fun with it, too.”