As the Fighting Illini look to become bowl eligible, the 17th-ranked Wildcats will try to take a step toward becoming the winningest team in school history Saturday in Chicago.
Northwestern has won eight of the past 12 meetings, but had a two-game winning streak snapped in a 47-33 home defeat last November. Fitzgerald was troubled by the job he did preparing his banged-up team in that battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.
"I was very critical of myself and I was very critical of what we did a year ago," he told the team's official website this week. "We went into this (Illinois) game with 30 guys who'd started for us down, and I did not feel I did a good enough job getting the next guys ready. Now did I imagine we'd have that many out? No, and it's not an excuse."
As a result, Fitzgerald has made an effort to give his reserves more time in practice. They might be needed with center Ian Park, linebacker Jaylen Prater and safety Traveon Henry among those dealing with injuries following last Saturday's 13-7 win over Wisconsin.
The Wildcats (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) have a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since 2012 and state a case for a major bowl game with a victory in the regular-season finale at Soldier Field. Northwestern has never finished a season with 11 wins.
"I'm not afraid to talk about the realities of situations," said Fitzgerald, a semifinalist for the Maxwell Coach of the Year Award. "Maybe it's counter to the way some people think, but we understand the opportunity we have in front of us this week."
Fitzgerald's squad could again rely on its defense after it limited the then-No. 21 Badgers to a Northwestern-record minus-26 rushing yards on 11 tackles for loss. Deonte Gibson led the way with three sacks and the Wildcats forced five turnovers.
Since allowing a total of 78 points and 872 yards in back-to-back losses, they've given up an average of 17.5 points and 324.5 yards while winning four in a row. They let Illinois rack up 438 yards - including 291 on the ground - in last season's matchup.
"We just got done with a heavyweight fight, and we're going to get another one on Saturday," Fitzgerald said. "Illinois got after us a year ago. They kicked our fanny, and our guys know that. The tape doesn't lie. We've got to play much better."
Josh Ferguson finished with 95 yards and two touchdowns in that contest. The senior running back also took over the team lead in rushing yards (668) over freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn last Saturday with a 105-yard effort in a 32-23 loss at Minnesota.
Illinois has dropped two in a row and five of six, but still has an opportunity to become bowl-eligible for the second straight season and fourth time in the past six. The program hasn't gone to bowl games in consecutive years since it went to five straight from 1988-92.
"I told them, 'You've got one more shot,'" said interim coach Bill Cubit, who replaced Tim Beckman a week before the season opener. "'Everything that you've put into this thing, you've faced so much adversity, this is just one more, just another in a long list.' I think they'll come out ready to play. We've just got to fix things."
The Illini (5-6, 2-5) have struggled on both sides of the ball, getting outscored 166-107 in their last six. They've also surrendered 538 yards on the ground over the past two.
That isn't a good sign heading into a matchup with a Northwestern team that ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 192.3 rushing yards per game. Sophomore Justin Jackson has been on a roll, totaling 441 yards and two touchdowns over his previous three.
Jackson starred with 130 yards and two scores last season against the Illini, who have lost 12 straight versus ranked opponents by an average of 22.6 points.