For years, Northwestern football has fought tooth and nail for respect. Respect from people all across the country to recognize that a small school with athletes who are held to a high academic standard could possibly compete amongst the giants of college football.
Game after game in 2020, the Wildcats kept turning heads as they climbed the polls, showing everyone they were not a team to overlook. With each win that came, the confidence grew within the program, but the rest of the country continued to question just how talented NU was.
The Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State was the ultimate test for the Wildcats, to prove they could compete with the big dogs on one of the game’s biggest stages. They came one quarter short of changing the minds of the doubters.
After being the first team of the year to stop Ohio State from scoring a touchdown on its opening drive, NU held them out of the end zone until the Buckeyes took their first lead of the game, 13-10, late in the third quarter.
From then on, OSU steadily imposed its will to salt things away.
As the Wildcats acknowledged postgame, coming close isn’t good enough. It does, however, raise the bar and motivation to meet higher expectations.
“To be here now two out of three years is really special, but the next step will be even more so,” Fitz said.
While the what ifs are still being talked about by Northwestern fans, and the doubters return to question the sustainability of NU’s success, the players know and feel how close they are to earning the respect of a top-10 team.
Fifth-year senior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman reflected on the transformation of the program during his Wildcat tenure.
“I’m honored and humbled to be a part of the wave that sends us to the next goal, the great goal, which is a Big Ten Championship and to compete after that wherever the cards lay,” he said.
The ‘Cats have the opportunity to put a bow on what’s been an impressive season — both on and off the field — on New Year’s Day in the Citrus Bowl against Auburn. Facing a historical college football powerhouse from the most respected conference in the nation, NU could walk away with its fourth-consecutive bowl win — the longest streak in school history. And, the Wildcats could come away with their best bowl victory since they won the Rose Bowl in 1949.
Northwestern has earned those big-time wins, bringing them closer to championships and closer to the respect afforded to other Big Ten programs. Now they need to close the gap between good and great.