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Giving thanks in Northwestern sports

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Eight things to be thankful for in Northwestern sports.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

While today is America’s annual excuse to eat piles of food and awkwardly make conversation with extended family members, it is also technically a celebration for all the good things from the past year. As this is one of the busiest Northwestern sports weeks of the season, we'd like to take a few minutes and reflect on the aspects of Northwestern sports we should be thankful for before turning it back up to eleven for Hat Week.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list. There are a ton of people who put in extensive work to make Northwestern Athletics what they are. But here are eight that stand out:

1. Northwestern's amazin' football performances

On this day of thanksgiving, we must first take a moment to appreciate that the football team is currently 9-2! Considering the team was unranked to begin the season, the team has exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations, and that’s definitely something to be thankful for. As Henry Bushnell wrote yesterday, the improbability of Northwestern’s current success has made this one of the most enjoyable seasons in Northwestern history. Northwestern’s last four victories were all decided by less than a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the team emerged victorious from all of them. We’ve been watching something special for the last month, and hopefully we can see them cap off a brilliant regular season by capturing the hat on Saturday. An 11-win season, which would be the first in program history, is, amazingly, still within reach.

2. Football's departing seniors

Sadly, the 25 graduating seniors only have two games remaining in their Northwestern careers. The seniors have been invaluable to this football team over the years, and it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate what they’ve brought to this program over the years. Where would this team be without Dean Lowry, Nick VanHoose, Dan Vitale, Traveon Henry, Deonte Gibson and others? Even Zack Oliver has played a role this season! Ultimately, no matter what happens in the next few weeks, the seniors on this team will be sorely missed, especially the key contributors on this dominant defense.

3. Bryant McIntosh

Although McIntosh had a pretty terrible second half against Missouri, McIntosh’s improvement as a scorer has been a pleasant surprise this season. He’s averaging 18.2 points per game, good enough for second in the Big Ten, and his assists per game are up by 1.3. He's improved almost every statistical aspect of his game to start off this season. At times, he has looked like one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, such as when scored the first 11 points again Mizzou with three consecutive three-pointers on Tuesday, or when he lit up Columbia for 30 points. McIntosh’s future looks very bright, and hopefully he can sustain his improvement as Northwestern heads into the rest of its non-conference schedule and Big Ten play.

4. The women’s basketball team

Northwestern women’s basketball continues to roll along, improving to 3-0 last Sunday with a win against Western Michigan. If you are tired of football after watching Mark Sanchez today, be sure to tune in to Northwestern’s game against Eastern Washington at 5 PM on BTN2GO. Northwestern has games on Friday and Saturday as well. Nia Coffey, Maggie Lyon and Ashley Deary have played very well thus far and look well on their way to repeating their tournament appearance from last season. Joe McKeown continues to prove he is one of the best coaches in NCAA women’s basketball, and we should all be thankful to have him.

5. Women’s soccer

This season, Northwestern women’s soccer made its first NCAA tournament since 1998 and advanced to the Round of 32 before losing to West Virginia. Northwestern played well all season, going 14-6-2 overall and 7-4-1 in conference. Junior Addie Steiner scored 7 goals and picked up 7 assists, leading the team to a rewarding tournament victory against Washington in the first round.

6. Justin Jackson the ball carrier

Every week, Justin Jackson just keeps on producing for Northwestern. Depending on his final two games, Jackson could conceivably finish the season 7th all-time in career rushing yards for Northwestern heading into his junior season, which is incredible. His durability has been critical for the team this season, and he's shouldered a massive amount of Northwestern's offense over the last two years.  Although the touchdowns have been lacking, he's clearly been the best offensive player on the team this season. If Jackson continues his insane pace and stays healthy for the next two years, he's on pace to pass the great Damian Anderson in rushing yards and set Northwestern's all-time record in rushing attempts. Jackson has already proven himself to be one of the school's best-ever running backs after just two seasons. Thanks Justin Jackson, you're the man.

Northwestern fans' reaction when Jackson bails out the offense

- The average Northwestern fan's reaction when Jackson bails out the offense yet again

7. Pat Fitzgerald

After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, Pat Fitzgerald endured some criticism from Northwestern fans over the direction of the program. It’s pretty safe to say he has silenced those critics. Fitz has done a good job this season. His late-game management has been effective, and he’s contributed to the team’s success in close games rather than the other way around. Fitzgerald has been on or coached every Northwestern team that has won 9 games or more since 1905, a remarkable stat that speaks volumes about what he's done for this program. This latest season may put his job security into Bob Stoops-territory, or even beyond it, which is a major accomplishment considering the state of college football coaching. So thanks Coach Fitz.

8. Jim Phillips

Even before his most recent accomplishment, the securing of a new on-campus, multi-purpose athletic facility that by all accounts will be amazing, Phillips has been great for Northwestern Athletics. He and his marketing team have done fantastic work, upping both football and basketball attendance significantly. Phillips' coaching hires have also been great, led of course by Chris Collins. But his other hires have helped to raise the profile of non-revenue sports such as field hockey, women's soccer and, as previously discussed, women's basketball. New baseball coach Spencer Allen, in principle, looks like a great hire too. Phillips has also rapidly ascended through the ranks in college sports. He became the chair of the NCAA Division I Council earlier this year, and was named one of the top 25 most influential people in college athletics by CBS Sports this past summer. If Fitz is the single most important thing to happen to Northwestern sports over the past 10 years, Phillips is likely No. 2. Or maybe Phillips is even No. 1.

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The staff at InsideNU would like to wish everyone out there a happy Thanksgiving and safe holiday travels. Thanks for reading this site, and contributing in the comment section. It's safe to say that writing for Inside NU and covering Northwestern's teams would be a lot less fun without people reading and interacting, so thank you all again. It’s been a fun couple months, and more excitement should be ahead of us.