by Chris Johnson (@Chrisdjohnsonn)
With 4:28 remaining in the fourth quarter, Bo Cisek entered the game as an eligible backfield runner. He took a hand-off up the middle and was stopped dead in his tracks, well before he could generate any momentum behind his gentleman’s listing 290-pound frame. One play later, Cisek fumbled. The loss of possession didn’t matter for two reasons: 1) Soon after recovering, the Illini were stuffed back in in their own end zone for a safety; 2) the Wildcats didn’t need four quarters to prove where the Land of Lincoln Trophy belongs this year. It was over long before Cisek’s gaffe. And if you hear the players talk about it, they’re convinced the metal bronze hat is staying in Evanston for a long time.
“I think that trophy belongs in our trophy case and should stay there for a while,” an expressionless Venric Mark would say after Northwestern’s 50-14 obliteration of Illinois.
The outcome was a personal triumph of sorts for the Wildcats, who have endured tough losses in the rivalry game the past two seasons. Last year in particular, when the Illini erased an 18-point third-quarter lead and celebrated afterward by flashing “The State of Illinois’ Undefeated Big Ten Team” on the Memorial Stadium scoreboards and blaring “Sweet Home Chicago” – a dig at Northwestern’s new marketing slogan: “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” – over the loudspeakers. Saturday’s win in many ways signaled a power shift in the state rivalry, but Northwestern is far more concerned with what lies ahead.
The Wildcats knew this game served as their last chance to impress bowl officials before they slot teams in the boatload of corporate-backed contests across the country. The way Northwestern convincingly squashed their in-state rivals, the bowl-game powers that be will have a hard time ignoring the Wildcats’ strong resume. With nine wins, zero bad losses, and a fair competitive stake in each defeat, Northwestern deserves a fair look at the high-end of the Big Ten’s bowl partnership selection. Problem is, so much of it falls out of the Wildcats’ control – the relative attractiveness of other eligible teams, for one – so coach Pat Fitzgerald made sure to conjure up his best sales pitch.
“In my opinion we made a very bold statement of a resume for our postseason,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re a very hot football team right now. If you look at all of our games we very easily could be undefeated.”
Questioning the legitimacy of Northwestern’s 9-3 season requires one to look past a nonconference portfolio that includes three wins over FBS teams (two of them bowl eligible), a 5-3 conference record and, as Fitzgerald made sure to point out, a penchant for hanging tough in all of its losses. While the overall strength of the Big Ten this season puts a drag on the equity of a conference win, you can’t quibble with the coach’s data points. Northwestern has a resume befitting an upper-echelon Big Ten bowl. That much is not up for debate.
If wins and on-field performance were the only criteria used in the bowl selection process, the Wildcats would feel much better about their bowl future than they do now. Other factors – like anticipated fan travel, a desire to avoid potential rematches, etc. – are often just as important as the results on the field. That won’t help the Wildcats secure a favorable postseason destination, but it doesn’t detract from the growth, maturation and cohesion Fitzgerald has orchestrated over the past three months. No matter where Northwestern ends up come January, there’s no taking away from what the Wildcats have accomplished this season.
“Nine wins is a great year. Ten is special,” Fitzgerald said.
That’s where Fitzgerald’s demeanor turned from one of satisfaction to pique. The next question triggered the former linebacker’s biting competitiveness. When asked about the “meaning” of a potential bowl victory for Northwestern given the program’s 64-year drought, Fitzgerald, flanked by the victors’ trophy on the dais, dove into the sore-spot question without restraint.
“It’s kind of the only lingering negative in our program that you guys just love to talk about,” he said. “The only thing I can do to make you guys not talk about it anymore is to win.”
Whether or not Fitzgerald makes good on that desire will depend on a handful of different factors. Will the fear of Northwestern’s diffuse fan base scare away an upper-tier bowl? How will the Wildcats be vetted against league opponents with similar resumes? Do they get stuck with an unfavorable matchup? All of these are important questions that play into the Wildcats’ chances of shedding that burden.
Beating Illinois was the confirmation of Northwestern’s rightful place amongst the Big Ten elite. Nine wins – for all but a few programs – is a palatable total no matter the competition level. Fitzgerald has more than acknowledged as much. But he wants to finish his strong work with a postseason triumph. The Wildcats will have to wait more than a month to snap their stained bowl legacy. Until then, the sheen of Northwestern’s strong season will come with a sense of anticipation, of unfilfillment.
As bowl season looms, the Wildcats have a prime opportunity to take this “great” season and make it “special.”