The hiring of Pat Fitzgerald was, without a doubt, one of the most transformative moments in Northwestern football history. While change wasn’t immediate, the puzzle pieces began to fit together, and it became clear that Northwestern was ushering in a new era of football.
Since becoming head coach in 2006, Fitzgerald has led the ‘Cats to a 99-79 record, four bowl victories and one Big Ten West title. Additionally, the Wildcats have topped 10+ wins on three separate occasions under Fitz’s lead.
But which of these 99 wins were the best? At the end of the day, a win is a win. However, some of these had much greater impacts than others.
Let’s jump right in.
#10: The ‘Cats knock off No. 21 Stanford 16-6 (Sept. 5, 2015)
Following back-to-back losing seasons in 2013 and 2014, the ‘Cats entered the 2015 year with uncertainty and angst. To top it off, they had to open against a Stanford Cardinal team that was heavily favored.
Yet somehow, the Wildcats made short work of the Cardinal. After a 42-yard dash by Clayton Thorson gave Northwestern the lead in the second quarter, they never looked back. A stout defensive performance held Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey to just 66 yards rushing. A 16-6 win here provided major momentum for the 4-0 start that ensued.
Oh, and by the way, this Stanford team went on to obliterate Iowa in the Rose Bowl and finish No. 3 in the country.
#9: Northwestern secures Pinstripe Bowl trophy over No. 23 Pittsburgh (Dec. 28, 2016)
After a somewhat disappointing 2016 campaign, including back-to-back losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State to begin the season, Northwestern found themselves back in the postseason and facing No. 23 Pittsburgh.
The Panthers were favored by five points at kickoff, but the ‘Cats proved their worth early on by taking a 14-10 lead into the half. Justin Jackson led the way for the ‘Cats on offense, rushing for 224 yards (!) and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Wildcat defense forced four turnovers, including a game-sealing interception by Jared McGee.
While this bowl game may not have been super significant, the 31-24 victory put NU above .500 on the season. On an unrelated note, Pitt was the only team to beat Clemson, the eventual 2016 national champions. That’s got to count for something, right?
#8: The ‘Cats outlast No. 16 Michigan State in 3OT (Oct. 28, 2017)
The 2017 season played host to three straight overtime victories by Northwestern. Yet the triple overtime thriller against No. 16 Michigan State was by far the most important.
The ‘Cats came into this game at 4-3 with the Spartans as the only remaining ranked team on their schedule. While a win wasn’t necessarily required, it certainly boosted their resume. This was a back and forth affair, with each team scoring at will. On top of that, the Spartans were ranked No. 16 at the time, making them the fourth highest ranked team Fitzgerald has beaten during his tenure.
#7: NU defeats Kentucky 24-23 to lock up Music City Bowl (Dec. 29, 2017)
The 2017 Music City Bowl was an absolute nail-biter, and I hated every minute of it.
The ‘Cats opened as touchdown favorites, and in the first half, they played as if they were the better team, going into the half with a 17-7 lead. But Kentucky soon clawed their way back.
In the end, it came down to one play. Literally. With just 39 seconds left, UK scored a touchdown, but opted to go for two. They failed to convert, and Northwestern walked away with a 24-23 victory. Justin Jackson was named MVP as NU earned its 10th win for the third time under Fitzgerald’s tenure.
If you remember, this win was earned largely without the help of Thorson, who tore his ACL on a trick play in the second quarter and didn’t play another down.
#6: The Wildcats shock No. 18 Notre Dame 43-40 in overtime (Nov. 15, 2014)
This game was a miracle by all facets imaginable. Northwestern trailed Notre Dame 40-29 with just under five minutes to go. Then, after Trevor Siemian ran in for a touchdown, the ‘Cats got the ball right back off of a Cam McDaniel fumble. Kicker Jack Mitchell then tied the game with a 45-yard field goal and Northwestern pulled off the upset in overtime.
The heroics of Mitchell cannot be understated. He drilled four of his five field goal attempts on the day, including a 46-yarder, the 45-yarder that sent the game to overtime and finally nailed the game winner from 41 yards.
While this game may not be as high as some of you may have liked, the impact it had on the season was minimal. The ‘Cats were already out of bowl contention, so a win here changed nothing in that regard. Regardless, it was a phenomenal upset over a bitter rival in one of the tougher stadiums to play at in all of college football.
#5: Northwestern upsets No. 9 Nebraska 28-25 (Nov. 5, 2011)
This win isn’t talked about enough.
In their first ever Big Ten matchup, a 3-5 Northwestern squad marched right into Lincoln and kicked the No. 9 Cornhuskers right off of their home turf in a 28-25 thriller. Without this victory, the Wildcats would’ve missed out on the 2011 bowl season.
While the season in which this victory took place was mediocre, the win itself was the exact opposite. Kain Colter did it all for the ‘Cats in this one, as he threw for 115 yards and one touchdown, rushed for 57 yards and two touchdowns AND caught three passes for 57 yards.
To this day, this win over Nebraska is the second-highest ranked team Fitzgerald has ever beaten.
#4: The ‘Cats win Holiday Bowl over No. 20 Utah in remarkable comeback (Dec. 31, 2018)
Fresh off a defeat in the 2018 Big Ten Championship game, the Wildcats came into the Holiday Bowl looking to make a statement.
But they came out lethargic.
At the end of the first half, the ‘Cats trailed No. 20 Utah 20-3. They didn’t allow a point in the second half.
Some highlights of their own scores included an 82-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by Jared McGee and a four-yard touchdown reception by offensive lineman Trey Klock. An eight-yard touchdown catch by Riley Lees put the cherry on top of a 28-point (!) third quarter for the Wildcats.
They won the game 31-20 to secure their spot as the 2018 Holiday Bowl champions.
#3: NU stuns No. 8 Iowa 17-10 (Nov. 7, 2009)
The biggest upset in Fitzgerald’s tenure came in a game with little offense. Surprise, surprise.
Few expected a 5-4 Northwestern team to stand a chance against an undefeated Iowa squad, but they did just that. After a sloppy first quarter, in which the ‘Cats fell behind 10-0, they cleaned up their act by forcing the Hawkeyes to turn the ball over four times.
The Wildcats threw for just 131 yards as a team while rushing for 130. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes threw for only 230 yards after QB Ricky Stanzi was sidelined with an injury in the second quarter.
This shocker at Kinnick Stadium was first signature win of Fitzgerald’s tenure. Additionally, it was Northwestern’s first top-10 win since 2004, when they knocked off No. 6 Ohio State at home in overtime.
#2: The Wildcats snap the bowl drought in 34-20 Gator Bowl victory (Jan. 1, 2013)
In 2008, Fitzgerald took the Wildcats to his first ever bowl game as head coach. They lost a heartbreaker in overtime to Missouri.
One year later, Fitzgerald took Northwestern to the Outback Bowl. They met a similar fate to the year prior, as they fell to Auburn in overtime.
One year later, Fitzgerald led the ‘Cats to the TicketCity Bowl in a matchup against Texas Tech. They lost by one touchdown.
In 2011, Fitzgerald took the Wildcats to the Meineke Car Care Bowl to face Texas A&M. It was their fourth straight bowl appearance, and they lost 22-33.
Finally, at the end of the 2012 season, the ‘Cats ended their 64-year bowl win drought. They cruised through their New Year’s Day matchup vs No. 21 Mississippi State to secure their first bowl victory since their win over California in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
That’s about all that needs to be said about this win.
#1: Northwestern locks up Big Ten West title in win over No. 21 Iowa (Nov. 10, 2018)
The goal of every college football head coach is to not only win games, but to win their conference. On Nov. 10, 2018, Fitzgerald and the Wildcats achieved that goal (kind of) by locking up their first ever Big Ten West title.
The game was a close, low-scoring affair that saw its first touchdown scored in the third quarter off a 34-yard Isaiah Bowser scamper. Iowa followed up with a touchdown of their own to take a 10-7 lead entering the fourth quarter.
In that final period, Bennett Skowronek made a stunning grab in the corner of the end zone to give the lead right back to the ‘Cats. Several tough runs from Bowser and game-sealing forced fumble by Joe Gaziano was all they needed from there to secure the victory.
Despite having a 6-4 record after winning this game, the Wildcats clinched their spot in the Big Ten Championship due to a 6-1 record in conference play. While they went on to lose in the Big Ten title game to Ohio State, the win in which the ‘Cats clinched their first ever Big Ten West title is, without a doubt, the biggest and best of Fitzgerald’s coaching career.
What games do you think should have been on this list? Let us know in the comments!