As Northwestern prepares to enter an offseason full of transition and urgency, demolishing its in-state rival was just the boost it needed to go into that period with a bit of momentum.
If there are moments NU fans remember from the 2019 season, they likely won’t include Saturday’s victory over the Fighting Illini. A year marred by a lack of execution, constant injuries, and a poor performance from the coaching staff didn’t provide many reasons for Wildcat fans to be joyous, but the start of a successful bounce back campaign was just launched.
“This is a huge springboard for the future,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said postgame. “The way that we did it today is a look at the future of our program.”
Northwestern has plenty of work to do in the next seven months, and one of the best ways to make sure everyone’s focus is on achieving their goals is by reminding the squad of the taste of victory. Over the course of a football season, it can be easy to lose drive and purpose in the midst of a historically losing season, but makeshift running back Ray Niro III is confident that won’t be an issue during this offseason, thanks in part to the victory.
“It’s huge for us, it’ll drive us going forward,” Niro said. “It’s going to fire us up and keep us going.”
To an extent, Niro embodies the spirit that will be needed from the program in its bid to make sure that the season that was just endured never happens again.
Mostly a special teamer and at times a wide receiver in his first two years in Evanston, the Barrington native was asked to play running back due to an injury crisis at the position. It’s going to take a do whatever it takes mantra to get back to competing for Big Ten West division titles, and that’s what he did.
Another ball carrier in Northwestern’s win over Illinois? Defensive back Coco Azema. A freshman that hadn’t seen much playing time all year, Azema represents another emergency back that got the job done. The pair combined for 179 yards on 11 carries and were essentially as impressive (if not moreso) out of the backfield than any true running back Northwestern has utilized this year.
“My thoughts were, if it helps the team win, let’s go and do it,” Azema said.
That’s the type of attitude that is going to help NU go from 3-9 to where it needs to be, competing on a weekly basis and winning football games. Everyone in the program knows that what happened this fall is unacceptable, and quarterback Andrew Marty was sure to emphasize that Saturday will help him grow and learn to be a winner.
“I’m gonna go into the offseason and challenge everyone to be the best they can be,” Marty said. “Whatever I can do, whatever we can do to ensure this year never happens again we are going to do.”
Even a senior leader like Joe Gaziano, who has experienced the ups of monumental seasons in years past before the low that 2019 represented, believes the win, and especially a phenomenal defensive effort, should be a great learning moment for those that are returning to Evanston in the future.
“I hope after today guys can see how [getting to the ball and working hard] helps and how you can suffocate the other team,” Gaziano said. “We have a lot of talent coming back and there will be a lot of guys who can find a way to be around the ball.”
It certainly doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s exciting to hear both the leaders that are departing from the program and those that are returning share an excitement and passion for its future. Whether it will pay off is to be determined, but it’s clear that the players will be ready and motivated when team activities restart in just over a month.
The first step to getting to that point? Winning a fifth consecutive HAT.