It started as soon as it possibly could.
After trouncing Tim Beckman’s hapless Fighting Illini on Nov. 24 to cap off the regular season, Pat Fitzgerald was already being hounded by reporters with the same question that had been haunting his program for more than six decades:
Will this be the year Northwestern finally breaks the bowl win drought?
In typical Fitz style, he asserted his utmost confidence in his team and fellow coaches, recognized how long the 64-year-old streak had been casting a shadow over Wildcat football, and even joked about how the sports media would hang his team up to dry before they even set foot on a practice field, let alone the playing field.
But before the reporters dispersed, Fitz made it clear how important a bowl win would be to his team, calling it “an exclamation point” at the end of a season few had anticipated and none had predicted.
Fitz’s Wildcats earned that exclamation point Tuesday in Jacksonville, ending the 2012 season on an emotional and historic note. The importance of this win to the past, present and future of Northwestern football cannot be overstated. But to understand just how remarkable this exclamatory ending to a storybook season is, you must go to the very start of the book – not just to Northwestern’s opening win at Syracuse.
Pat Fitzgerald (SESP '97) was only 25 when he interviewed to be Randy Walker's linebackers coach at Northwestern in 2001. He told Walker his long term goal was to take his job. He was hired soon after.
When Walker died suddenly of heart failure in June 2006, Fitz became the youngest head coach in college football, stepping into the spotlight in the midst of tragedy to take lead of the Wildcats.
The initial years were tough, but after 4-8 and 6-6 seasons in 2006 and 2007, Northwestern began a streak of five consecutive bowl appearances. With Fitz at the helm, the 'Cats built upon a decade-long cultural evolution that he helped ignite as a linebacker and rekindle as a coach. A postseason was no longer cause for celebration – it was now a prerequisite for a successful year.
But as the 'Cats continued their rise to prominence, they often found themselves in an awkward middle ground: They were good enough to earn matchups with marquis football teams, but not quite good enough to beat them. Four straight bowl losses under Fitz, two of them in overtime, only fed the questions that haunted the team since the magical 1995 season that ended with a loss in the Rose Bowl to USC.
After losing to Texas A&M in the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, things looked bleak for Northwestern. An explosive but inconsistent offense lost its starting quarterback in Dan Persa and two top receivers in Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore. A secondary that was routinely picked apart lost its two bright spots in safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin. It looked like 2012 would be a rebuilding year for the 'Cats.
Like all great stories, though, this one had a twist, as a team predicted to finish toward the cellar of the Big Ten almost rose to the very top. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian defied convention and logic by leading the Northwestern offense with two very disparate styles of play. Running back Venric Mark sprinted and squirmed his way through defenses to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards and earn an All-American honor as a punt returner. Cornerback Nick VanHoose battled through injury to anchor a shaky secondary that improved with each game Northwestern played.
However, it was the members of the senior Class of 2012, the players who finished each of the first three or four years of their Northwestern careers dejectedly walking off of a foreign field after another bowl loss, the players who subjected themselves to the annual interogations, the players who worked tirelessly for almost half a decade to break a 64-year-old stigma, who inked the exclamation point Fitz described on that frigid November afternoon under the sunny skies of Jacksonville.
Defensive lineman Quentin Williams returned Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell's first of four interceptions for a touchdown in the first quarter and sacked Russell on 4th-and-long in the final minutes of the game to seal a Northwestern win. Safety Jared Carpenter led the team with 10 tackles and earned ESPN Player of the Game honors as linebacker David Nwabuisi, who had 18 tackles in one game against Iowa, came in right behind him with six. Offensive linemen Patrick Ward and Neil Deiters did what they've done all season: protect Colter and Siemian and give Mark enough room to make big plays.
And like many great groups of athletes, the whole of Northwestern's class of 2012 amounted to much greater than the sum of its parts. Individually, these seniors made the plays necessary to break the curse, but together they pressured Russell into turning poor decisions into interceptions, bending to the Bulldogs' running game while not breaking, allowing Mississippi St. to make 1-of-11 third down conversions, and most importantly, helped preserve the most dangerous thing a Wildcat team can have: a lead in the 4th quarter.
The most important thing about the exclamation point Northwestern earned today is how it's not only the end of an era in Wildcat football, but the dawning of a new one. But in order to truly appreciate how much it means to the future, you must recognize how much it means to the past.