NEW YORK — Under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium, an up-and-down 2016 season for Northwestern ended on an emphatic, joyous up.
As purple and white confetti rained down on players and coaches just moments after the Wildcats’ 31-24 upset victory over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl, Northwestern fans in the crowd and alumni across the country were understandably ecstatic. Yet one sentiment nagged at that excitement. With all of the talent Pat Fitzgerald’s team displayed on Wednesday, it’s hard not to think this team could’ve - and probably should’ve - done a lot better than a 7-6 record.
This is a team that just beat No. 23 Pitt, a team with two top-5 wins. This is a team that took down Iowa in Iowa City and came up one play short against Playoff-bound Ohio State in Columbus. The ability was there. It’s the consistency that wasn’t. There was the woeful start to the season, highlighted (lowlighted?) by an inexcusable loss to Illinois State, as well as clunkers in crucial November games against Wisconsin and Minnesota.
But as Fitzgerald noted after the game, the way this team closed out 2016 has the program’s arrow pointing in the right direction.
“For us, I think the way we finished with a win over our rival [Illinois], then to come in here and beat a top-25 team in the fashion that we did, I think it shows that the foundation's solid for the future,” Fitzgerald said.
This was a big win for so many reasons. From a historical standpoint, it’s tangible evidence of how far Fitzgerald has taken the program. The current redshirt seniors are the only players in Northwestern history to have experienced two bowl victories. It also meant consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2009 and 2010.
Most importantly, it gives the team something to build off of going forwards.
“We talk about getting our respect as a program,” said safety Godwin Igwebuike. “Coming in here and getting that kind of a win, that says a lot. It tells the doubters, ‘we’re here to stay, what’s up?’ and it adds confidence to our team as well, gives us a little more swagger going into next season.”
From a personnel standpoint, there’s no reason why Northwestern shouldn’t improve in 2017. Justin Jackson, who ran for 226 yards in the Bronx to surpass 4,000 for his career, will be back for his senior season. Clayton Thorson will have another offseason of growth under his belt. If neither Anthony Walker Jr. nor Igwebuike leave early to enter the NFL draft, the Wildcats will return 19 of their 22 starters.
Only one of those three guaranteed departures is on the defensive side of the ball. Linemen Ifeadi Odenigbo and CJ Robbins, both of whom started across from Xavier Washington at times this season, are gone, but Joe Gaziano looks more than ready to step into their place. Even in the unlikely event that both Walker Jr. and Igwebuike declare for the draft in the upcoming weeks, linebacker Nate Hall (7 tackles) and safety Jared McGee (1 INT, top PFF grade) played excellently in the bowl win, inspiring confidence that they would be capable of moving into larger roles.
On offense, starting left tackle Eric Olson and a couple backups will graduate, but the line is a unit that improved throughout the year based mainly on the play of several underclassmen. The most concerning loss, obviously, is Austin Carr, a Biletnikoff finalist who came out of nowhere to produce arguably the best season by a wide receiver in Northwestern history.
With Carr gone, the onus will be on guys like Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson to try to replace his production in the slot. The guy who’ll be throwing them the ball is confident they can do it.
“You saw those guys take so many strides this season,” Thorson said. “You see Flynn, who got hurt last year and came back and had a bunch of yards this year (441, second on the team). Macan, obviously a big game today, big fourth down catch. I have full confidence in them and we’ll continue to work in the offseason.”
Superback Garrett Dickerson, who scored his fifth touchdown of the season, will also be back, as will less-used receivers Solomon Vault and Ben Skowronek. Add in a schedule that avoids both Ohio State and Michigan, and 2017 seems like a year with a lot of potential.
“We want to carry this momentum into next year,” Carr said. “When you talk to the younger guys, they’re very happy we won, but this makes them even hungrier for a better bowl next year and to be Big Ten champs.”
No, one impressive bowl victory isn’t going to create much change in the long term. What it does do is illuminate the idea that Northwestern football is very much on the rise.
Fitzgerald has his best recruiting class ever coming in next season. With the new $260 million athletic facilities set to be completed in the next couple years and some sustained success visible on the field, those classes should continue to get better and better.
For now, Northwestern will enjoy its Pinstripe Bowl victory, one that almost no one saw coming. But before too long, the Wildcats will get back to work.
Because in 2017, 7-6 won’t be good enough.