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A comprehensive history of Northwestern football’s bowl games

The ‘Cats are looking for their fifth straight postseason victory.

Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

With the ‘Cats slated to play their first bowl game since January 2021, it’s only right to remind readers of the team’s postseason history. NU has played 16 bowl games and won six, including its last four. Let’s recount every postseason showdown the purple and white have appeared in leading up to Las Vegas.

1949 Rose Bowl

Result: 20-14 win over California

The ‘Cats (7-2) entered their first bowl game appearance in program history as a 6.5-point favorite to the Golden Bears (10-0). Michigan finished first in the Big Nine, but NU benefitted from the conference’s no-repeat rule that was finally scrapped in 1972.

NU’s Frank Aschenbrenner ran for 119 yards on the day, including a 73-yard touchdown that broke a Rose Bowl record. In the fourth quarter, the ‘Cats snapped the ball directly to halfback Ed Tunnicliff, who darted past the Golden Bears to the end zone. PeeWee Day sealed the game for NU with a last-minute interception, giving the purple and white their first bowl win. The ‘Cats found a way despite converting just seven first downs to Cal’s 12.

1996 Rose Bowl

Result: 41-32 loss to USC

NU returned to Pasadena almost a half-century later, squaring off against Keyshawn Johnson and the Trojans. To open the 1995 season, the ‘Cats took down No. 9 Notre Dame in South Bend — from there, “Expect Victory” became their defining motto. They went 10-2, including an undefeated record in eight Big Ten games, earning a No. 3 ranking entering the New Year’s showdown.

The ‘Cats couldn’t find the same success in sunny California. Trojans QB Brad Otton threw for 391 yards, with 216 of those going to Johnson — the Jets would draft the 6-foot-4 receiver first overall just three months later. NU held a 32-31 lead in the beginning of the fourth quarter, but the Trojans scored 10 unanswered points to earn a win for the home crowd.

1997 Citrus Bowl

Result: 48-28 loss to Tennessee

NU sported a stellar defense in 1996 led by two-time national DPOY Pat Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, it was on the wrong side of history on New Year’s Day. Peyton Manning put up 408 passing yards and four touchdowns on the ‘Cats, who dealt with a flu outbreak and received IVs in the stuffy Orlando heat.

The Vols got out a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, but Northwestern fired back with three touchdowns of its own. In the second half, the ‘Cats couldn’t keep up as quarterback Steve Schnur threw three picks, including a crushing 30-yard pick-six. Tennessee finished with 523 total yards to Northwestern’s 285.

2000 Alamo Bowl

Result: 66-17 loss to Nebraska

The Wildcats’ bowl woes continued into the next millennium. In the biggest blowout in Alamo Bowl history, the Huskers scored 31 second-quarter points and never looked back.

‘Cats back Damien Anderson, who finished fifth in Heisman voting three weeks prior, rushed for 149 yards and a touchdown. Despite his best efforts, the ‘Cats simply couldn’t stop Nebraska’s rushing attack. Fullback Dan Alexander rumbled for 240 yards and two scores, and quarterback Eric Crouch rushed and threw for two touchdowns each.

2003 Motor City Bowl

Result: 28-24 loss to Bowling Green

It was all about the ground game for the ‘Cats in Detroit. Running backs Jason Wright and Noah Herron combined for 317 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Wright’s touchdown run went for 77 yards — the second-longest in Motor City Bowl history.

But, NU simply couldn’t stop Bowling Green’s passing attack. Josh Harris threw for a whopping 386 yards and three touchdowns; on the other side, NU signal-caller Brett Basanez went just 7-for-15 for 58 yards without a touchdown pass. The ‘Cats’ one-dimensional offense wasn’t enough to keep up with the Falcons, who finished the season ranked No. 24.

2005 Sun Bowl

Result: 50-38 loss to UCLA

Basanez was far more active for NU against the Bruins, throwing for 416 yards and two touchdowns on 70 attempts. He and the ‘Cats came out firing, putting up 22 unanswered points to begin the game. Their fortunes quickly changed as UCLA began clicking on the ground and through the air; the Bruins went on a 29-point run of their own entering halftime.

The Bruins’ two-headed monster of Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell combined for 299 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. NU’s defense simply couldn’t keep up, which wasn’t necessarily a surprise — it allowed an FBS-worst 480.4 yards per game in 2005.

2008 Alamo Bowl

Result: 30-23 (OT) loss to Missouri

The “Journalism Bowl” pitted the No. 23 ‘Cats against the No. 21 Tigers, with the latter entering the day as a 12.5-point favorite. NU intercepted Chase Daniel on Mizzou’s opening drive, and QB C.J. Bacher found Eric Peterman in the end zone on a 35-yard shot. The two teams were tied at 10-10 entering halftime, and again knotted at 23-23 after 60 minutes of play.

The Tigers won the coin toss in overtime — and it didn’t take long for Daniel to find Jeremy Maclin for a seven-yard touchdown. Northwestern had a chance to respond, but a devastating strip sack eventually led to a game-ending turnover on downs. The crushing overtime result marked NU’s sixth straight bowl loss.

2010 Outback Bowl

Result: 38-35 (OT) loss to Auburn

Another shootout, another shattering loss in overtime. In his first season as a starter, senior quarterback Mike Kafka led the ‘Cats to an 8-4 record. The captain set plenty of bowl game records, attempting 78 passes for 532 passing yards. Oh, and he threw for four touchdowns and five interceptions. Yikes.

Starting kicker Stefan Demos was injured in the overtime period, forcing Pat Fitzgerald to send out the backup to kick the game-tying field goal. Instead, in true Randy Walker fashion, the ‘Cats attempted a fumblerooski — receiver Zeke Markshausen circled back for a handoff but was stopped at the 2-yard line. Though the final score wasn’t in NU’s favor, this bowl game was one of the most entertaining products in college football history.

2011 TicketCity Bowl

Result: 45-38 loss to Texas Tech

NU entered Dallas without starting quarterback Dan Persa, who tore his Achilles in November. In his place, Fitzgerald started Evan Watkins and incorporated wildcat QB Kain Colter. The two signal-callers combined for just 114 passing yards, but Colter led the rushing attack with 105 yards and two touchdowns.

The Red Raiders held a commanding 21-point lead in the third quarter when head coach Tommy Tuberville decided to try an onside kick. The ‘Cats recovered and would get as close as within seven in the final frame. But Taylor Potts was too much for NU’s defense, as he earned MVP honors with 369 passing yards and five total touchdowns.

2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

Result: 33-22 loss to Texas A&M

This was Northwestern’s second bowl in the 2011 calendar year, squaring off against another Texas team in the Lone Star State. Dan Persa and the ‘Cats held a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, but Texas A&M put up 27 unanswered points to set up a commanding victory.

Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill won game MVP after throwing for 329 yards and a touchdown. He got plenty of help from his defense, who sacked Persa and Kain Colter eight times. For those counting at home, this was Northwestern’s ninth straight bowl loss.

2013 Gator Bowl

Result: 34-20 win over Mississippi State

At last! The No. 20 ‘Cats got out to a 13-0 lead in the second quarter after intercepting Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Russell three times. NU’s quarterback tandem of Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter tossed three picks of their own, but the rushing attack picked them up. The ‘Cats ran for 161 yards, plus three touchdowns in the second half of action.

NU’s bowl win snapped a nine-game losing streak that was tied with Notre Dame for the longest in NCAA history. This victory was Pat Fitzgerald’s 50th as head coach, surpassing Pappy Waldorf as the winningest coach in program history.

2016 Outback Bowl

Result: 45-6 loss to Tennessee

NU entered New Year’s Day ranked No. 13 in the nation, while the Vols sat 10 spots lower. But the CFP rankings didn’t seem to matter, as Tennessee’s run game single-handedly dismantled the ‘Cats. As a team, the Vols stormed for 226 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

The purple and white played catch-up from the very beginning. QBs Clayton Thorson and Zack Oliver combined for four interceptions without a touchdown pass. Justin Jackson was a bright spot for the ‘Cats, as he rushed for 74 yards and found the end zone in the second quarter.

2016 Pinstripe Bowl

Result: 31-24 win over Pittsburgh

Like his entire career as a Wildcat, Jackson was the star of the show in the Bronx. He shredded the Panthers for 224 rushing yards and three scores on 32 carries. Jackson put the ‘Cats up 14-3 in the second quarter, but Pitt responded with two touchdowns of its own. Yet JJTBC wasn’t done — he regained the lead for NU with a 40-yard house call in the next frame.

The ‘Cats scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to secure their third bowl win in program history. It was no surprise when Jackson was named MVP of the game.

2017 Music City Bowl

Result: 24-23 win over Kentucky

NU lost Thorson early to a leg injury, but Jackson picked up the slack as always. He earned MVP honors again for his 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Second-string RB Jeremy Larkin was no slouch, either — he stormed for 112 yards on just nine carries.

The ‘Cats held it down on the defensive end when it mattered most. They limited Kentucky to just 65 rushing yards on 22 carries despite allowing 107.8 rushing yards per game in 2017 (eighth-most in FBS).

2018 Holiday Bowl

Result: 31-20 win over Utah

The ‘Cats had their work cut out for them in San Diego. Utah sported an elite defense that gave up just 19.4 points per game, which was 19th in the FBS. Worse yet, the Utes were fourth in the FBS in allowing 101.4 rush yards per game.

In a shocking turn of events, it was NU’s defense that dominated the game. In the third quarter alone, the ‘Cats scored 21 points off three Utah turnovers. Safety Jared McGee returned a fumble for an 82-yard touchdown as part of a stellar showing from the purple and white. Utah was a seven-point favorite, but the ‘Cats overcame the odds by becoming agents of chaos.

2021 Citrus Bowl

Result: 35-19 win over Auburn

The No. 14 Wildcats were favorited coming into Orlando, driven by a lockdown defense that surrendered the fifth-fewest points per game in the FBS (15.9). NU got out to an early 14-0 lead behind two TD passes from Peyton Ramsey. However, two field goals and a 57-yard touchdown from Bo Nix put Auburn within one in the third quarter. But the ‘Cats fired back with three straight scores to reach a 35-13 lead.

Auburn managed to find the end zone once more, but it wasn’t enough to keep up. Ramsey was named MVP after throwing for 291 yards and three touchdowns. This was Pat Fitzgerald’s final bowl win before his termination in July 2023.

2023 Las Vegas Bowl

Result: TBD

NU will square off against Utah on Dec. 23 and look to win its first bowl under head coach David Braun. The Utes have lost 12 players to the transfer portal and more to the NFL Draft since their regular-season finale, including star receiver Devaughn Vele and defensive back JaTravis Broughton.

The Wildcats are riding a three-game winning streak, including an electrifying 45-43 victory at Illinois on Nov. 25. Utah is currently favored by 6.5 points, but don’t discount the Cardiac ‘Cats as they look to cap off an impressive season.