JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After an inspired 34-20 Gator Bowl win against Mississippi State, Northwestern spoke like a program on the upswing. The Wildcats won 10 games, competed to the bitter end against elite Big Ten teams, and they return nearly all of their skill players next season.
While the talent remains, they have another type of void to fill – leadership.
Though the word is difficult to define, this class of NU seniors embraced the concept. Last season, they left Houston an unsatisfied group, and committed to building their teammates up. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said it took a yearlong process to reach this height.
“The guys took it upon themselves from the minute we landed in Chicago until today when it said ‘zero, zero, zero’ on the clock to be champions,” Fitzgerald said. “We might not be putting the Big Ten Championship trophy in our case, but we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today.”
All season long, Fitzgerald talked about the “chemistry” of his team, and referred to it as the greatest accomplishment of his departing senior class. Not only that, in their swan song, many delivered their finest performances.
Jared Carpenter earned ESPN Player of the Game honors with 10 tackles and a near interception. He strengthened an improved secondary that gave Tyler Russell fits. The four interceptions he threw marked the highest total from an MSU quarterback since 2007. Russell had only thrown six the entire season.
Quentin Williams was another beneficiary of Russell's poor decision-making. The fifth-year defensive lineman returned an interception for a touchdown on the third play of the game, and added one of NU’s three sacks. Earlier today, Fitzgerald showed plays from each senior during their high school careers. He went alphabetically, finishing with Williams.
“And Q. Williams’ play, he hits the quarterback, knocks him down,” Fitzgerald described. “The quarterback (gave up the ball) at the last second, then Quentin chases the guy for like a minus-one yard play.
“That’s the way he’s been his entire career.”
NU showed its character and leadership from week one. Against Syracuse, they blew a 22-point lead but still rallied for a season-opening win. Despite three difficult loses, the Cats kept coming back stronger.
Fitzgerald noted in his Monday press conference that NU’s three best games had come after losses. Maybe that changed today. His seniors completed the climb, and best of all, accepted the importance of their roles.
After the NU defense allowed one of many big plays early in the game, senior linebacker David Nwabuisi gave an important message.
“He said, ‘I adjusted that play wrong. It’s my fault. I’ll get it fixed,’” Fitzgerald recalled. “When your senior captain linebacker is pointing at himself and taking responsibility for his actions, I think it’s like: ‘Okay. Let’s go fix it … We’ve got a job to do and let’s go do it.”
Nwabuisi, one of the clear emotional leaders, was overjoyed by the overall play from his unit.
"I don’t know who didn’t make a play on defense,” he said. “It was incredible. Plays were coming from everywhere. The defense (competes) to see who can make the most plays and truthfully, we had no idea.”
Nwabuisi and the entire senior class left the program better than they found it. Brian Mulroe, who worked alongside fellow seniors Patrick Ward and Neal Deiters on the offensive line, recognized today as the culmination of their hard work.
“A 10-win season is really big for this senior class,” Mulroe said. “This program is on its way up.
After the tears and the celebration, Fitzgerald took that old monkey and the team tore it to pieces. Flip to a new chapter in Northwestern football – one with a remarkably high ceiling.
The team loses a group of seniors who carried this team from start to finish. But they can observe from a distance as the program continues to rise.
“This is a legacy that our seniors will live forever and leave with us forever,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re incredibly thankful, but this is just another step in the journey of this program.”
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