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Northwestern leaves Indianapolis seeking a “new normal”

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Saturday was a purple-crazed party, but Northwestern wants more.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — As confetti fell on the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium, Clayton Thorson, the last Northwestern player still on the field, jogged toward his team’s tunnel, then stopped.

He turned around, pivoting toward the stadium’s hulking JumboTron, and took one final look at a field that represented so much more than the yardage markers and hash marks. After about a second, reality set back in, and he turned and continued on his path to the locker room.

“That’s something we’ve worked for for a long time,” Thorson said. “So just want to take it all in. Just trying to enjoy the moment. You know, there’s only so many times where you can be in games, trophy games like that.”

The Northwestern fans got the memo there — Saturday was a purple celebration rivaled only by the 2017 NCAA Tournament in recent memory. Pat Fitzgerald said he wants the Big Ten Championship to become the “new normal” for his program, but Saturday was not normal.

When Northwestern took the field, the purple corner of the stadium roared, and purple towels twirled for a group of players fans were proud to call their own. In a sea of red, the outnumbered purple held its own. There was an electricity in the air, an unquantifiable fighting spirit that made the experience more than just an appearance — Northwestern, both on the field and in the stands, made its presence felt.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

“They created the new standard in our program,” Fitzgerald said of the seniors, “and, you know, to see them emotional in the locker room after the game, you’re a mentor first, and to see that it just breaks my heart for them because they gave everything that they have and I’m incredibly thankful for ‘em.”

All over the field, the Northwestern senior class made its presence felt in Indianapolis. Thorson, in his 52nd career start, ignited Northwestern’s offense in the third quarter to bring his team with in striking distance of the mighty Buckeyes. Jordan Thompson, often underappreciated, plugged gaps all night on the defensive line, and produced a key sack and forced fumble in what was one of the best games of his career. Montre Hartage, fighting an injury that eventually forced him out of the game, picked off Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins — one of the only moments when Haskins looked flustered. Not to mention all of the offensive lineman that gave NU a chance throughout, and others.

After giving up a touchdown on the opening series and punting on the ensuing possession, and it looked like the lights might’ve been too bright for the newcomer Wildcats, Northwestern responded. John Moten dashed 77 yards for a score that shocked everyone in attendance, except maybe the players themselves.

When Haskins delivered a ready-made 43-yard touchdown strike to Terry McLaurin to put Ohio State up 24-7 at halftime, the Buckeyes looked poised to turn the second half into a blowout. Nope. Northwestern marched right down the field on the first drive of the half, and then did it again on the next possession to cut the OSU lead to three.

At almost every opportunity when it seemed like the less talented Northwestern would fold, it didn’t. And when its corners kept dropping like flies, and mistakes looked like they could end the game, Northwestern kept coming, because that’s what Northwestern does. It’s a cliche, yet it’s true: Northwestern bends, but doesn’t break. It plays up to bigger, faster and stronger teams. It doesn’t often beat itself. Week to week, Northwestern is one of conference’s toughest outs.

“I think we proved that we weren’t just happy to be here,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald couldn’t help but come back to the senior class at his press conference. Discussing the postgame scene in the locker room, Fitzgerald began to get emotional. “I’m so thankful that I get one more game to coach ‘em,” he said. “And just so thankful for all that they’ve done for our program.”

Fitzgerald and players alike called the game a learning experience for all involved.

“Now [the players] know what it takes to win a Big Ten championship,” he said. “And I think until you’re in this game, you really don’t quite understand all that extra work that needs to go in to getting you know onto that field for the celebration.”

Thorson acknowledged the magnitude of their accomplishment, saying he was proud he was on the team that broke through to Indianapolis. Still, there was disappointment. Ohio State, after all, was the team on the field for the celebration. Thorson said he dreamed of having a rose in his mouth on the field after the game.

“We’re really proud to get here, but that wasn’t the end goal,” Thorson said.