The words defense and Northwestern don’t usually go hand in hand, but in today’s 34-20 victory over Mississippi State, the NU defense stole the show. It took 64 years, but the Cats finally got the monkey off their back with their first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. It may only be January 1st, but 2013 looks to be a potential historic year for the Wildcat football program.
This year’s squad went to Jacksonville with a swagger, ready to beat whatever SEC team got in the way. Gone were the stuffed monkeys, fake field goals, and various gimmick plays. This Cats squad didn’t need that crap to compete with the Bulldogs. They went to Jacksonville with one purpose, to beat the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
The Cats came out of the gates firing on all cylinders to take an early 13-0 lead. The old Cardiac Cats then showed up letting Mississippi State tie the game at 13 early in the third quarter. With momentum clearly on the side of Mississippi State, Northwestern fans started thinking “here we go again.” Could Northwestern yet again blow a double digit lead (Penn State, Michigan, and Nebraska)? Not today, not with this focused group of Cats. Nick VanHoose picked off Tyler Russell for one of Russell’s four picks on the day, leading to a Venric Mark touchdown, essentially ending the game. For a team that has relied on its offense all year, it was nice to see the defense step up.
After the game, an emotional Pat Fitzgerald explained the importance of today’s bowl victory. “The sky is the limit for where our program can go. ... 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." Fitz knew that without a bowl victory, the Cats would always be described as a “cute” program. Just a few weeks ago, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier belittled the Cats saying that nothing good comes out of playing them in a bowl game. The Cats have earned respect in the Big 10, and with today’s victory, they are starting to gain the respect they deserve nationally.
This coming season sets up to be one that could see the Cats competing in a BCS bowl. With almost all of their key contributors returning next year (Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Damien Proby, and Chi Chi Ariguzo), the Cats are primed to be a preseason top 20 team. Coach Fitz has done a masterful job in recruiting, bringing in talent on both sides of the ball. Never has a Cats team featured the kind of athletes this current squad has. The Cats could always score, but they could never compete on the defensive side of the ball. For the first time in years, the Cats are no longer outmatched athletically on both sides of the ball.
In addition to the great talent returning, the schedule is very favorable for the Cats. They play all of the “big boys” of the Big 10 next year, but will see the two top teams (Ohio State and Michigan) at home. Their two toughest road trips next year will be at Camp Randall against the Badgers and Memorial Stadium against the Cornhuskers. Both Nebraska and Wisconsin have had great programs, but the 2013 squads will be younger squads.
If it wasn’t for a few bad minutes of football in their three losses, the Cats could have easily been undefeated this year. If the Cats can take care of business with their non-conference opponents, the Big 10 opener against Ohio State looks to be the game of the year. If they can knock off the Urban Meyer led Buckeyes, the Cats could see themselves in the top ten. Winning a bowl game was step 1 in Fitz's plan. The Cats need to take step 2, winning a Big 10 Championship. While 2012 was a season of missed opportunities, 2013 is primed to be the year of the Northwestern Wildcats.