The accomplishment can’t really be understated.
There are college football programs, a good number of them, where a double-digit-win season isn’t something to get terribly excited about. It’s the norm. And maybe one day, that will apply to Northwestern. But on the road to being that type of program, winning 10 games in a single season is an important step, it’s an exciting step. And for the fourth time in the history of the Northwestern football program, the Cats are 10-game winners.
Saturday’s win over Illinois was victory No. 10 on this season, the 2015 team matching what has only been done by a Wildcats team in 1903, 1995 and 2012.
Pat Fitzgerald was a player on that 1995 team. He coached that 2012 team. Now he’s coached half the 10-game winners in school history, a shining example of how far he’s brought a program that used to be the Big Ten’s laughingstock. Now that former laughingstock boasts a senior class that’s won 10 games twice in their careers. Not bad. Not bad at all.
“Really proud of our seniors,” Fitzgerald said after Saturday’s win at Soldier Field. “They’ve been through a ton over the last two years. And to finish today a season that really is on their shoulders. They’ve been the ones that have gotten our values back, reestablished our standards, and to go to 10 wins in the regular season is something that’s very special.”
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Northwestern got here after back-to-back five-win seasons, seasons those present-day seniors also played through, seasons that straddled that union movement that might have had a bigger effect on the team than most let on.
Those seniors witnessed the highs during their first season. They witnessed the lows during the past two. Now the highs are back again, and the group has earned the right to soak it all in.
“It’s incredible. I think it says a lot about the guys and the maturity and the leadership that that group had. We’ve been through it all,” super back Dan Vitale said. “We’ve been through great seasons, we’ve been through two not-so-good seasons. So we’ve really been through it all, and I think the leadership and the qualities we’ve developed the last couple years here really came to the forefront. We were able to do something incredible this season.”
Fitzgerald has recounted on numerous occasions how senior-laden units on the defensive line and in the secondary were tasked with leading this team back to where it was when they were true freshman or sophomores. Well, though there’s still one game left — a bowl game, where a win would mean the first 11-win season in program history and the first senior class to win two bowl games in program history — consider that mission accomplished.
And consider a legacy established, too.
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“It’s a special legacy. And now one more huge opportunity in front of them. To be the only senior class to potentially have two postseason victories would be a statement by that group,” Fitzgerald said. “That defensive line and secondary, when I met with them in January and said that who they are, what they stand for and how they work and their attitude and their belief in the program has got to take over the program. They have got to totally press their will, press their belief and take the football team over. The Deonte Gibsons and the C.J. Robbinses and the Dean Lowrys of the world and Traveon Henry, Matthew Harris, Nick VanHoose. That’s a strong, strong group of leaders. I know they’re excited. That was a fun locker room to be a part of, and I know they’re also excited for the next challenge and test that we’re going to have. Obviously, with our success, we’re going to play an outstanding team.”
“It’s a big motivation for us, and it’s also a big accomplishment,” Gibson said. “It’s something we wanted to do and accomplish since January. This is what we worked for, this is what we grinder for, this is what we strived for. And the job’s not done because we have one game left. This is just an awesome feeling.”
While you might not officially be able to call it a legacy until the next few years play out, there’s no doubting how important this class of student-athletes could be in the evolution of Fitzgerald’s program. Winning is the bottom line in college football, and these guys have done just that: win. Winning brings program success and exposure, which in turn brings bigger recruits, and so on and so forth.
Plus, there’s a visibly bright future, too. Running back Justin Jackson, just a sophomore, was sensational Saturday and has been all season. Quarterback Clayton Thorson made some huge plays in the first half on three consecutive touchdown drives. Linebacker Anthony Walker certainly deserves to be mentioned among the best linebackers in the Big Ten.
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And all three guys voiced their admiration of this senior class after Saturday’s game.
“They bring a lot of passion, energy. You can tell they love the program,” Walker said. “They’ve all bought in. And just bringing the young guys with them, that’s all it is. And you just feed off of that. The younger guys are feeding off their energy.”
So while there’s still one game remaining for this class, the seniors also feel like they’ve established something sustainable after two down seasons followed up the last 10-win campaign.
“I think it puts us back on the map, that’s for sure,” Vitale said. “Obviously we wanted to keep that going the next couple years even though we won’t be here anymore. But it’s just an incredible feeling for all us. We’ve been through everything together. And out No. 1 goal’s not reached yet. We want to get that 11th win and do something that’s never been done here before.”
The Big Ten boasts a lot of good teams, particularly this season with four teams currently ranked in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings. But Northwestern certainly needs to be counted among quality groups like Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan.
These seniors have earned that. And they have the wins to prove it.