It did not take very long after the confetti was cleaned up from EverBank Field and the stuffing was vacuumed out of the locker room for thoughts to race toward 2013.
How could they not? For the first time in 64 years, Northwestern could leave a season feeling unbridled hope for the future. Not only was the team winning, it had won that elusive bowl game and had everyone talking positively about the program. No one could feel pessimistic about the season. Even those pessimistic Northwestern fans were seeing the glass half full.
And there is good reason for that. Kain Colter and Venric Mark return to anchor the offense. Kyle Prater has the potential still within him to be a game-breaking offensive weapon. The secondary played its best game in maybe two or three years against Mississippi State and returns virtually everyone (save Demetrius Dugar and Jared Carpenter). The defensive line gains Ifeadi Odenigbo after a strong year.
It is hard not to get wrapped up in all that. It was also hard to believe — and we seem to be saying this with disbelief today — that this was a young team meant to be a rebuilding year, so to speak. Inexperience was supposed to be the team’s weakness and uncertainty about who would step up tempered expectations a bit.
Thankfully, several players did step up and we know the rest of the story.
Moving forward to 2013, though, copying that success and meeting now raised expectations will be Northwestern’s next challenge. Staying on cloud nine is much more difficult than getting there.
It will not be easy in 2013. Particularly considering the little Northwestern does lose to graduation. That group includes three offensive linemen, which was the foundation for Northwestern’s rushing renaissance this year, in Patrick Ward, Brian Mulroe and Neal Dieters. There are defensive stalwarts like Quentin Williams (who had a sack and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Gator Bowl), David Nwabuisi and Gator Bowl MVP Jared Carpenter to replace too.
It might be easier to replace their on-field presence and production. But as Nicholas Medelline of PurpleWildcats.com points out, it is those intangible qualities that might be more difficult to find and replace next year. This season’s success, as we all know, was born out of the failures of the last two seasons. And this senior class, the all-time winningest class in program history, wanted to leave as champions on the field.
Though the word is difficult to define, this class of NU seniors embraced the concept. Last season, they left Houston an unsatisfied group, and committed to building their teammates up. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said it took a yearlong process to reach this height.
“The guys took it upon themselves from the minute we landed in Chicago until today when it said ‘zero, zero, zero’ on the clock to be champions,” Fitzgerald said. “We might not be putting the Big Ten Championship trophy in our case, but we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today.”
All season long, Fitzgerald talked about the “chemistry” of his team, and referred to it as the greatest accomplishment of his departing senior class. Not only that, in their swan song, many delivered their finest performances.
The stories of this team’s chemistry were pretty wide ranging. Fortunately there are a lot of players who were a part of building that chemistry — Kain Colter was a captain all season — and they know the feeling and the methods used to build that camaraderie. But the kind of chemistry needed to have those truly special seasons takes something much more organic. Hopefully there is carryover.
More importantly, though, Northwestern will need players to step in and fill those shoes. And this is unfortunately something you cannot predict will happen.
It would make sense for this year’s statistical leaders to step into the spots left vacant by last year’s leaders. That is how these things are supposed to work. But each player is different and each person is different. Each season is different and each team is certainly different.
After the Wildcats lost in the TicketCity Bowl, the team hit the weight room hard but did not build that off-field chemistry. Dan Persa’s injury did not help as Persa became the heart and soul of the team. This past offseason was different. The whole thing with the monkey and the refusal to settle for any type of mediocrity (or just being happy to be bowling) drove the team in the offseason.
Now with that first goal accomplished — a bowl win — what drives the team this offseason? Do they sense the goals and the optimism fans sense? Do they ignore that and go about their business? Who steps into those leadership roles?
These are questions asked every year. But one of NU’s big motivators is gone and the program is officially heading into uncharted territory. And so as the revelry over winning that bowl game begins to wind down and eyes turn toward the 2013 season (Signing Day is officially one month away!) this is the biggest question for the team as they enter their winter workouts and build the 2013 team away from the coach’s eyes.
We will have to wait until spring to see what emerges on the field.