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The class of 2018 leaves Ryan Field in style

Senior Day was a good day for Northwestern.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

With the clouds, snow, and rain swirling, a mostly empty Ryan Field had a cold and eerie atmosphere no Saturday. The relative quiet made Northwestern’s utterly dominant 39-0 win over Minnesota feel like a well-executed studio recording. When you play the highlights back, it sounds perfect, well-edited, and meticulously crafted.

There’s not much to add about the game. Minnesota was completely unprepared for Northwestern’s intensity and talent. The offensive line overwhelmed Minnesota’s defense. More Wildcats caught Minnesota passes than Golden Gophers by a margin of 3-2. After a scoreless first quarter, Northwestern exploded for 25 points in the second and put the game out of reach. It was Northwestern’s most dominant performance in years. By margin of victory, it was the Wildcats’ biggest win since 1970 and one of the biggest in program history.

The performance was so good that it’s hard to even create useful sports commentary. I’ll stick with the clumsy music metaphors instead. This week, Northwestern’s live rehearsal took place during Wednesday’s practice. In equally awful weather, Fitzgerald’s players embraced the cold and had one of their best practices of the season.

“If we had played on Wednesday this week, we would have put up 80,” Fitzgerald said.

The MP3 edition of Wednesday’s jam session was filled with perfect execution and a celebration of what the Class of 2018 has achieved. It almost seemed designed to get as many program stalwarts into the game on Senior Day, the final home game for many of their careers. Fitzgerald said he put as much effort as possible to get players into the game.

The whole game was a trip down memory lane. In the collective memory, the past usually boils down to a few scattered details. In 40 years, when this blog is run by robot Northwestern fans, these last five years of Northwestern football will probably be summarized in a few fleeting events: #M00N, Jack Mitchell’s game-winning kick at Notre Dame, the Stanford upset, Illinois State, the Pinstripe Bowl, and the three straight overtime triumphs in conference play. But history is dull when merely told as a series of interconnected events spaced through time. We also remember the characters. Heroes, villains, scapegoats, and martyrs echo through the halls of time.

For this specific era of Northwestern football (the post-Persa Era, the Era of Good Ceilings, etc.), the members of the class of 2018 may well be those defining historical characters. They all put on a show in their final home game at Ryan Field, a dominant 39-0 over Minnesota that was never close.

To be fair, the whole team has put on a show since October 1st. The Wildcats’ current six-game win streak is the longest Northwestern has had since 1996. This stretch and inevitable bowl game will rank as one of the best accomplishments in team history. But the class of 2018 has been about more than wins and losses, even if they continue to profess that “going 1-0 every week” is all that matters. They are memorable characters, and amazing players who we’ll wax lyrically about in Internet forums for generations to come.

Justin Jackson (THE BALL CARRIER) is a Northwestern legend. He’ll never be forgotten in the entire history of Northwestern football. There will probably be old codgers in 2057 who want young, naïve sportswriters to remember when Jackson ran for 166 yards in pouring rain through three quarters against Minnesota on Senior Day.

“Been a lot of good memories here,” Jackson said, in his final home press conference. “All things come to an end, I think all of us were happy about how it ended.”

At this point, we’re out of records to give Justin Jackson. He’s rapidly ascending the all-time rushing leaderboards. I won’t even give an update on where he places because he’ll probably have climbed another spot before HAT Week is over.

But the other seniors, especially on the defensive side of the ball, will also echo through time. Godwin Igwebuike is certainly one of Northwestern’s best safeties of all-time. I look forward to telling young fans that Igwebuike was the hardest-hitting safety to ever wear a Northwestern uniform. He’s partnered by Kyle Queiro, who seems to make incredible, once-in-a-career plays every other game. Remember that one-handed interception? Remember the pick he had to seal the Stanford game? Against Minnesota, Queiro once again shut down any thought of throwing the ball.

And we can’t forget Tyler Lancaster, the bearer of the No. 1 jersey and a defining character in the collective memory. Fans will remember him as the run-stuffing monster who anchored a defensive line for three years. The senior had 3 tackles, 1.5 for loss, and a half sack in his final contest. Brett Walsh played despite being limited for much of the week. It seemed like every senior played some role: Matt Alviti played for a quarter, Marcus McShepard had his best game of the season, Warren Long had 4 tackles, Parrker Westphal got some time, the list goes on.

“I tried to get everyone who was eligible on the field,” Fitzgerald said. He said the rotations were “hectic” and that it was harder to manage personnel-wise than many of the close games this year.

Northwestern’s fantastic team effort against Minnesota also allowed for some lesser-known Wildcats to take the field. Cory Acker, one of the team’s best personalities, found the end zone and gave a fantastic postgame interview. Chad Hanaoka, who once graced Inside NU’s most-beloved story, found his way into the game. Even walk-on wide receiver/holder Alex Bousky got a six-yard carry (#Bousky4Heisman).

There were others on the field who were honored for playing their part through this era. Keith Watkins II was on the field before the game, and while he may come back for another year, it was still great to see him. Xavier Washington was also back, seemingly out of nowhere after his suspension earlier this season. Those two were also a key part of the story, and it was good to see them honored for their efforts. We should also remember Matt Harris and Anthony Walker Jr., both part of the Class of 2013 who played a huge role for Northwestern in the last five years.

Saturday was just a perfect day for Northwestern sports. Men’s and women’s basketball both won competitive games. If you’re Jim Phillips, you have to be thrilled at what’s occurred since Northwestern football’s Class of 2013 arrived. A comfortable win in Champaign next week would make the success even sweeter.