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Finally, Northwestern football is a champion again

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From a special night in Iowa City.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Before the commemorative hats and shirts, before the interviews and thank yous, before whatever the hell is about to ensue in Indianapolis, Pat Fitzgerald was raw.

He wasn’t the well-prepared, matter-of-fact head football coach we saw at the press conference. He wasn’t the laser-focused, locked-in game strategist on the sideline. He wasn’t preaching the Wildcat Way, he wasn’t talking graduation rates or APR scores and he wasn’t talking about going 1-0 next week. All of that would and will return, but not in this moment.

In this moment, Fitzgerald was a messenger. With his team huddled close, he had a message that was long overdue. It was a message born out of unyielding hours of work, and out of adversity, disappointment and embarrassment. And togetherness. And preparation. And success. It was everything.

And, in the moment, Fitzgerald didn’t even get to finish delivering the long-awaited, elusive words.

It didn’t really matter. Everyone knew. In the otherwise quiet, slicing cold of a sub-freezing night at Kinnick Stadium, players with white pants and jerseys began to bounce. Voices began to rise. Arms wrapped into sweaty, joyous hugs. Lips formed into smiles. And all the other things you do when you don’t know what to do happened.

Those players — that jumping, yelling mosh pit of happiness — will never forget what happened Saturday night in Iowa City.

No one associated with Northwestern will, either.

***

Hours before holding a trophy he’d spent years relentlessly hunting down, Clayton Thorson was throwing up. He was sick. Maybe something he ate, he speculates.

Thorson played, though, because he always plays. Thorson doesn’t miss games. Not after vomiting before kickoff, not after tearing his ACL nine months before a game. Sometimes he’s up, and sometimes he’s down, but he’s there. And that matters. The work he put in to get back for this season’s opener was nothing short of remarkable, and that’s what helped make a legendary night in Iowa City.

“Clayton’s the all-time winningest quarterback in this program’s history for a reason,” Pat Fitzgerald said Saturday. “He’s tough, he’s gritty, he’s a big-time player, but more importantly he’s a big-time person.”

For most of Saturday’s game, Thorson was not sharp. His receivers didn’t always help him, no, but Thorson missed throws. He threw interceptions, and he couldn’t sustain or finish drives all night.

Until he did.

With nothing really working, with his team losing, with Iowa fans breathing deafening noise into Kinnick Stadium, Thorson hit Bennett Skowronek in the corner of the end zone for a pitch-and-catch worthy of any hyperbole you have. This was the Dererk Pardon shot against the Michigan. This was the signature play in the biggest Northwestern football moment of the Pat Fitzgerald era.

The throw was good, and the catch was spectacular.

“It was a ridiculous catch,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know how he caught the ball. I don’t think anybody in the building thought he caught the ball.”

Bennett Skowronek, take a bow.

But back to Thorson, who embodies Northwestern more than other player on the team. Sometimes, he dominates, and sometimes, he struggles. And, when he’s at one of those extremes, you wonder why on this day, of all days, is this performance happening. You can’t really explain it. Some games, the throws sail high or skip off the turf before reaching his receivers. Some games he’s running for his life, and it’s still on him to win the game. Some games, he can’t miss. And some games, it’s all or some of those things.

Saturday, in that game — in the game — Clayton Thorson produced the kind of magic that sends purple-wearing fans into a frenzy. The kind of magic he’s spent a career looking for. The kind of magic that wins championships.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

***

Northwestern is not a prototypical champion. It’s a champion with flaws and scars, and a champion that caught breaks.

I mean, Northwestern lost to Akron! And won the Big Ten West! That doesn’t make logical sense!

Dig into the numbers further, and it still won’t. But hey, stats are for losers, right?

The process says Northwestern shouldn’t have won the Big Ten West. Not enough explosive plays, not enough efficiency in key areas and not enough turnovers forced.

The weird, unexplainable thing about Northwestern, though, is that the process is the results themselves. Usually, the performances are relatively unbalanced. Either the running game or the passing game shows up offensively, but not really both. One typically shows up, though, and it’s often enough to win. Northwestern doesn’t commit many penalties. It finds a way to convert when it has to.

This team is a team; when individuals make mistakes, other players step up. When Clayton Thorson threw a pick in the third quarter Saturday and Kinnick was roaring, Northwestern’s defense got a three-and-out. When the passing game couldn’t drive the ball downfield, the offensive line and Isaiah Bowser went to work, to the tune of 31 carries for 165 yards for the true freshman. With its top three cornerbacks out after Montre Hartage went down with an injury, Roderick Campbell ran step for step with a receiver to break up a would-be touchdown.

That’s how a team that fell to Akron fought its way back to the Big Ten Championship.

“The brotherhood that’s in that locker room is the glue that’s kept everything together,” Fitzgerald said. “If I would say one thing about this group, the brotherhood is what’s special.”

“When we face adversity, we’re not going to cower,” Joe Gaziano said.

The oddity of clinching both the division and bowl eligibility on the same day is indeed weird.

Northwestern playing in the Big Ten Championship is weird too. It’s not supposed to happen. The only private school in the conference, the smallest school in the conference, the school in the sleepy college town is not supposed to beat the schools with football-crazed college towns and huge fanbases.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Northwestern played its best four games of the season against the other four best teams in its division, and won all of them. No, that doesn’t excuse Akron or explain Duke. It doesn’t even necessarily mean Northwestern was good this season. “Winning the Big Ten West” was always a relative accomplishment — just being better than the other teams in the division.

And that’s exactly what Northwestern was this season.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

***

Pat Fitzgerald has no problem talking about what he and his team want to accomplish. He’s fine with the pressure that comes with winning, because it comes with winning.

Entering this week’s game against Iowa, Northwestern didn’t shy away from the stakes.

“I didn’t hide the opportunity this week,” Fitzgerald said. “We can control the West if we win Saturday in Iowa City, and if some things happen, we can be putting a trophy in case here with two weeks to play. Anybody wanna sign up for that?”

Naturally, Fitzgerald was asked if he had talked to his players about the Rose Bowl.

“I haven’t yet,” Fitzgerald said.

Key word: yet.