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Win rewards upperclassmen, instills confidence and hope in younger players

Who cares if it was UMass? These NU players deserved (and needed) a victory.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 UMass at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unlike last season, a mid-November Northwestern victory did not clinch the program a Big Ten West title. Unfortunately, a win this time around didn’t even move them into position to play for a fifth straight bowl appearance down the stretch of the 2019 campaign.

But the Wildcats’ 45-6 romping of UMass on Saturday gave a group of players and coaches an on-field performance to smile about for the first time in two months, and that reality can’t be overlooked.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels,” said junior linebacker Chris Bergin following the win. “Regardless of our record, you can’t get tired of victory.”

So what if the win came against a lowly UMass squad? Celebrating this performance doesn’t mean that we all of a sudden have to stop criticizing Mick McCall and this woeful NU offense, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we sweep all the past performances under the rug and pretend like everything is ok. Instead, it allows everybody around the program to find at least some silver lining in a largely lost season.

There hasn’t been much to smile about this year, but seeing the players — especially the upperclassmen who have poured their heart and soul into this program for the last 4+ years — make game-changing plays and come out with a home win in the second to last game of the year should bring a smile to the face of any true Northwestern fan.

Seriously, when’s the last time Northwestern had an exciting big play on defense/special teams like the Gaziano/Bergin blocked kick return from Saturday?

Sure, the ‘Cats’ win wasn’t pretty at times, or even, for that matter, a complete team performance, but simply seeing the joy on the faces of the Northwestern players as they stepped up to the podium after the game was a sight for sore eyes.

“The agony of defeat and the thrill of winning, you feel that every week, and we’re happy to be on the other side of it,” Gaziano said postgame.

Throughout the latter half of the seven-game losing streak the ‘Cats snapped on Saturday, Fitz and the rest of the team have constantly harped on sending the seniors out the ‘right way.’ Although yesterday was certainly a game in which Northwestern needed a win to avoid complete and utter embarrassment, it was nonetheless a vital and necessary step toward giving this team’s seniors a high note to leave on.

According to Gaziano, the atmosphere in the postgame locker room was “light years different” compared to the rest of the games this year, which is obviously expected, but still great to hear given how much the team has been through.

Some might say postgame dancing is inappropriate for a team that just improved to 2-8 on the year, but I’d have to respectfully disagree. Considering the sheer amount of tough, agonizing losses the squad has faced this year, this team deserves a celebration like this more than anyone.

If we can’t get behind and celebrate walk-on redshirt freshman Ray Niro III leading the dance circle after scoring his first career touchdown, regardless of opponent, what’s the point of all this anyway?

But the story on Saturday wasn’t solely about getting it done for Northwestern’s seniors and trying to send them off on a high-note.

Several young Wildcats turned in impressive performances against the Minutemen, and seeing them gain some confidence and have success on the gridiron is just as important as making sure Northwestern’s seniors achieve something close to the sending-off they deserve.

Whether it was true freshman back Evan Hull trotting into the end zone for the fourth time or Adetomiwa Adebawore continually finding his way into the UMass backfield, we started to get a glimpse at some pieces who will play a key role on this team in years to come.

“It feels really good,” Hull said on the win. “We got to sing the fight song that we haven’t sung in a long time. We’ve got some momentum going into these last two games.”

These players will obviously face tougher competition from here on out in their NU career, but confidence and the mere feeling of winning in college has to start somewhere, and for the Wildcats, things were at least set in motion on Saturday.