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Despite slow start, Northwestern still managed to clinch bowl eligibility in 2016

The Wildcats are going bowling even after a 1-3 start. And that’s huge for overall program progress.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, Northwestern football regressed.

Regression is a loaded term, but it’s hard to call going from 10 wins to 6 wins anything other than regression. The offense improved markedly, but the team still won four fewer games than it did a year ago.

None of that matters because Northwestern still made a bowl.

Despite a disastrous start to the season that involved the now infamous 9-7 loss to FCS team Illinois State, Northwestern still managed to get to six wins and clinch that all-important bowl berth. For a program that followed up its most recent 10-win season with back-to-back bowl-less campaigns, that’s significant.

“I feel great for our seniors. You talk a lot, in our world, about legacy and impact and things of that nature, and the first couple weeks of the season sure didn’t look very good,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “To their credit they were the ones that keep it together, they were the one’s that responded.”

Now 2016 wasn’t a program-defining year by any means, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Northwestern appeared to be on track for a program-defining year after starting 1-3, but not the type of definition that you want. It would have cemented itself solidly in the “fluke team” category and negated any of the momentum that 2015 had given the program. It was on track to be 2013 all over again, only this time perhaps even more catastrophic because it would have been the second major disappointment in five years.

However, the team responded, ripping off back-to-back road wins at Iowa and Michigan St and then taking possible national champion Ohio State to the wire.

“We responded to a lot of adversity throughout the year,” Clayton Thorson said. “A lot of people counted us out after those first four games, after we started 1-3, thinking ‘here we go again’ and we just knew that’s not how we wanted the season to go.”

Northwestern rode a mid-season surge from the offense to three straight Big Ten wins, but even so, still sat at 5-6 entering the last game of the regular season. This was a not an unfamiliar feeling for many of the players: The 2014 Wildcats had found themselves in the exact same situation, after playing an eerily similar season to 2016. That team got blown out at Ryan Field, 47-33, and missed a bowl game for the second straight year. The 2016 Wildcats wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again, at all costs.

“It was important all throughout the week, and before the game I felt we had a focus that we haven’t had in a while,” running back Justin Jackson said. “It was really important for us to get it for the seniors on their last day at Ryan Field.”

Jackson was even more focused than most, as the junior running back had his best game of the season, racking up 173 yards and three touchdowns on only 21 carries, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. During the game, Jackson also passed Tyrell Sutton for second on the all-time Northwestern rushing list.

From a coaching stand point, 2016 may be Pat Fitzgerald’s finest season to date. He may have won more games in other years, but take a look at the team that lost to Illinois State and compare them to the team that played Ohio State. It’s night and day.

“This is probably the hardest we’ve practiced in season here, in my 11 years, just because of the amount of growth we needed to have happen each week,” Fitzgerald said. “And you can see from the immaturity and the lack of consistency that they’re still not close to where we need to be.”

The 2016 version of Northwestern was far from perfect, but it still qualified as one of the better team’s in program history. Over the last 20-plus years, Northwestern has experienced an embarrassment of riches when compared to the era before that, making 12 bowl games in 21 years and even winning the Big Ten thrice. Before 1995, Northwestern had made exactly one bowl game in program history.

Yes, it was harder to make a bowl game back then, and yes, expectations should shift due to sustained success, but still, that shouldn’t downplay the importance of this season. Northwestern has made a bowl game in back to back seasons, and as we saw from programs like Oregon, Michigan State and Notre Dame this year, that’s not the easiest thing.

“I’m excited, I’m fired up for this opportunity that we have in front of us, absolutely ecstatic to beat our rival and finish it off the right way here in Evanston,” Fitzgerald said. “But as a coach you get excited for a little bit and then you think about, ‘what do we need to do’ and I’ve been in that mode 24/7 for the last 13 weeks.”

That’s the most important point moving forward. Northwestern managed to maintain its momentum as a program by making a bowl game. Now it can continue to increase it by winning only its third bowl game in program history. The Wildcats gave themselves that opportunity by blowing out its in-state rivals Saturday.