You can read about the stats. We can obsess over the play-calling. It doesn’t matter. Northwestern just won a bowl game. Not just any bowl game, but the Gator Bowl against an 8-4 SEC opponent. We’ll get to all of that game breakdown later tonight. Heck, I won’t even gloat about my Dan Vitale click to pick. For now, I’ve got more pressure on me than ever as a packed Hyatt Regency bar of partying ‘Cat fans including our fearless president are waiting for me to join them in celebration.
I will start trying to convey what it felt like. That’s right, I’m starting with the very end of the game. With 1:42 to go and the defense having forced yet another turnover, this time on downs, reality started to hit. Despite the poor overall attendance, Northwestern had a good 20,000 or so fans and the throng of purple was on its feet screaming at full throat. We all looked around. We did the math calculations on the impossibility of it all and we were taking a knee. The cheering didn’t stop for 20 minutes. I stood there with shivers and chills saying outloud “this is really happening”. The players looked like five-year-olds bounding around with glee. Fitz got the Gatorade shower, the first such one of his career, which oh by the way, is now win number 50, good enough to become the alltime wins leader in the history of Northwestern football. The players donned their Gator Bowl CHAMPION hats and raced towards the band. We all sang the fight song with the band. The players then moved to the other side of the Northwestern side and did it again. The PA announcer was interrupted by the half stadium singing. he wisely let the fans sing on. Then Fitz and the players took the podium.
He was emotional. I was emotional. Hell, my cell phone was emotional as “OMG!!!” texts came through at a rate that was on par with the INTs in the game. The enormity of the moment hit me. 10-3 and Gator Bowl champs. A likely Top 15 finish and a preseason Top 15 start. And for the love of God, no longer having to endure ESPN or BTN’s lower third graphic reminding the nation about 1949 and the streak. This is big. No, it is monumental. As B1G teams went down on New Year’s Day in both blowout (Purdue), heartbreaking (Michigan) and just downright outmanned (Nebraska) ways, NU was carrying the torch for the conference. Oh yeah, and how about some of our wins now – Syracuse, Vandy, Michigan State – not so bad, right?!!
As the moment consumed me I thought about guys like Darnell Autry, who had kindly texted me before the game. I thought about Damien and Zak and Teddy Johnson and Brett and Tyrell. I thought about guys you’ve never heard of who played in virtual anonymity in front of 14,000 fans in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. Guys who never tasted winning, let alone a bowl win. And there they were right in front of us. A group that went way beyond everyone’s expectations, except themselves. A team that created the swagger that has been one of the small intangibles missing from the program. A team that defined resilient, getting back off the mat after seemingly unbearable last second losses. I thought about what they must be thinking. And then Fitz took the mic.
At this point, one side of the stadium was 100% empty. Not a single purple clad fan had left, however. Fitz was clearly (or at least by the pauses, audibly noticeable) emotional. Then you realized once again, why the school’s most visible brand ambassador must be so easy to go to bat for if you’re Jim Phillips or Morty Schapiro. He improvised my thoughts exactly. After his diplomatic thanks, he thanked the fans, and said he always tells the guys to act like you’ve been here before. Then, he admitted, “we’ve never been here before”. He talked about the seniors and asked that the fans and players unite in singing the fight song as he directed the band to play. It was one of those “you had to be there” moments. Man, was I glad that I was. Fitz abutted his quote about not having been there before with the emphatic “we are here now and we are here to stay!”.
You know I’ll break the game down later. We’ll give out The Great, The Good & The Disappointing as we always do, but this post is about something much bigger than that. It is so much bigger than one game. It is a major milestone for the program. A rung up the ladder to becoming a perennial Top 25 team and a legit B1G title contender. We’re all Northwestern fans. Those of us in the stands and you at home were freaking out up 14 entering the 4th quarter and especially when Mississippi State cut it to seven. We overcame the mental block and have now erased one of the very few negatives left in program perception.
The irony of it all is that this game was the inverse of what everyone expected. Our secondary won the day forcing four INTs and played brilliantly. We shut down Tyler Russell who went just 12 of 28 for 106 yds and had as nearly many INTs (4) in this game as he did all season (6). Our running game barely got going as they managed to keep Venric Mark in check and it was Trevor Siemian’s passing against the best CB duo in the nation that supercharged us. Our rush defense, the rock all season, got gashed in big chunks. We candidly played an average game, yet still managed to beat our second SEC foe of the year (with Vandy winning 9 games and a bowl, that is no longer spin, it’s legit) – by 14 (and we all know most SEC teams would’ve punched it in to win by 21 at the end)! There is so much to go in to, so much to breakdown, so much to be positive about. But, for now, I’m going to party like it’s 1949.
PS – That one last “negative”? Not having Ryan Field packed with purple. Season tickets went on sale today. Let’s do our part and start recruiting people on this awfully sexy bandwagon, shall we?