Fitzgerald, Northwestern get bowl monkey off their backs

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Fitzgerald, Northwestern get bowl monkey off their backs

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The best news coming out of Northwestern's 34-20 win over Mississippi State in Tuesday's Gator Bowl, was that the monkey has been destroyed.

It came a year later than had been planned, but the monkey is officially history.

Don't be alarmed PETA members, the monkey is not real.

It's the fictitious animal that has been logged on the shoulders of Northwestern football teams participating in bowl games each of the last five seasons and for years before that. Northwestern won the 1949 Rose Bowl Game against California and the Wildcats haven't claimed victory in a postseason game since.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald thought he could put an end to the Wildcats' lengthy bowl losing streak a year ago when Northwestern met Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston. The stuffed monkey made the trip to Houston but earned a ride home with the Cats when they dropped a 33-22 decision to the Aggies.

Fast forward to Jacksonville and the Gator Bowl where Northwestern was trying to end its nine-game bowl losing streak, a dubious mark that they shared with Notre Dame as the longest losing streak ever in bowl history. Once again, Fitzgerald made certain "Mr. Monkey" was part of the team's traveling party to Florida.

"I gave it to Curtis, Curtis Shaner, long time equipment manager before we left. And I said 'put it in the case and put it away,'" an elated Fitzgerald said at the press conference after Tuesday's game. "After we win, we're going to tear it up and never go back there. I think they said on the podium in the postgame ceremonies on the field after the game, we've never been here before. But now we're here and here to stay with a new streak you can talk about in a positive fashion."

So the monkey has made its last trip with Northwestern. Fitzgerald made it clear, in a laughing manner, that the Wildcats took turns shredding the stuffed animal in the locker room afterwards. He brought the mangled mess to the press conference -- or at least what was left of it -- for all to see.

Afterwards, Northwestern players talked about the relief of not having to discuss about the losing streak any more and what a great sendoff the victory was for the senior class, the winningest group of seniors ever to play at Northwestern.

"I'm so glad that monkey is off our back and that we're the group that did it," said starting right guard Brian Mulroe, a fifth-year senior and a four-time loser in bowl games prior to Tuesday. "We're the seniors who helped end the streak. The sky's the limit for these young guys. We deserve this after what we've put into the program this year. All our hard work has paid off."

Starting quarterback Kain Colter had similar thoughts. Colter did what he could to bring about a win by leading the Wildcats in rushing with 71 yards in 11 carries (6.5 avg.) and added another 76 yards in the air on 9-of-16 passing.

"This means so much to the program. This win's for the seniors," said Colter, a junior. "I feel like a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders."

Fitzgerald may be the most relieved person that the monkey and losing streak are a thing of the past. From his opening press conference on the first day in Jacksonville up until his final media briefing the day before the game, Fitzgerald was asked about the bowl misfortunes in various ways. Some were subtle, some were indirect, some were pointed. But all wanted to know why the losing streak had extended to nine games in a row, including each of the last four years.

Each time, Fitzgerald calmly, patiently and in a positive manner, explained how the Cats have been close, how they've played well for a half or three quarters, but had yet to turn in a full four quarters of solid play.

That's why there may have been some nervous Northwestern fans at EverBank Field on Tuesday, watching their team build a 27-13 lead after three quarters. Would this be the fourth game this year that the Wildcats had led by double figures in the second half, only to see the lead evaporate and end up in a loss? It happened against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan, the Cat's three losses in a 9-3 regular season.

When Mississippi State scored four minutes into the final quarter to make it a 7-point game, the collars became a little tighter for those wearing purple.

But on Mississippi State's next possession, quarterback Russell Tyler underthrew an intended receiver by 10 yards and Nick VanHoose was there to make the interception. The redshirt freshman cornerback not only made the pick - the fourth of the game by the Cats' defense - but he returned it 39 yards to the 10-yard line.

A penalty moved it to the 5 and while it took three plays from there, Venric Mark's burst off left tackle from three yards out resulted in a score to make it a more comfortable 14-point margin.

Mississippi State never threatened again, failing to get past its own 30 yard line in its final two possessions. And once Northwestern ran out the clock from inside the Bulldogs' 10-yard line the final 1:42, the celebration began.

Fitzgerald was doused with blue Gatorade and immediately jumped into the arms of 300-pound defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, the culprit behind the coach's soaking. Players paraded near the stands, extending and receiving congratulatory high-fives from joyous Northwestern fans. Fitzgerald later took control of a field microphone, thanked the fans for their support and joined the team and supporters in singing the school fight song.

Afterwards, pictures were taken of any combination of players and coaches, whether it be by class, unit or just friends. Everyone wanted the trophy included in their picture, but no one wanted the monkey to be a part of the celebration. His demise was eminent and with it, NU's bowl game blues.

"Every time I think about what just happened on this field, I start to tear up a little bit," said Quentin Williams who started the Northwestern scoring when he returned an interception 29 yards to the end zone on the third play of the game. "This is just a fantastic happening for our school. We've worked so hard to get to this point and it paid off today. I've been here for five years and to finally get a win is just amazing.

"I can just imagine how everyone feels back home and how they're celebrating. This win is for anyone who's ever strapped on the Purple and White at least once in their life. Without doubt, the best feeling I've had in my five years at Northwestern. We're doing some good things around here and it's going to take us places."

And no monkey will be accompanying the team on these journeys.

Illinois State, Loyola, Northern Iowa all in action Saturday on CSN and CSN+

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USA TODAY

Illinois State, Loyola, Northern Iowa all in action Saturday on CSN and CSN+

Illinois State, Loyola and Northern Iowa will all be in action Saturday.

And you can catch all three games on CSN and CSN+.

Tennessee-Martin at Illinois State, 2 p.m., CSN+

The Redbirds (4-3) are coming off of a tough loss on the road at Tulsa, but they're off to a solid start early in the season. Senior point guard Paris Lee, a Proviso East product, is having a monster season for Illinois State so far, averaging 15 points, 6.4 assists and three rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from 3-point range.

Tennessee-Martin (8-2) is off to a great start with only a pair of road losses to SEC opponents Ole Miss and Kentucky.

Milwaukee at Loyola, 3 p.m., CSN

The Ramblers (8-2) have won three straight games and will try to carry that momentum into Horizon League play. Junior forward Aundre Jackson is off to a great start, averaging 16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

Loyola features a few former local high school stars. Senior Milton Doyle (Marshall) and junior Donte Ingram (Simeon) are both playing well.

Milwaukee (4-5) is off to a decent start in a rebuilding year under new head coach LaVall Jordan and is coming off a road win against Montana State.

Rockford Boylan product Brock Stull is the Panthers' leading scorer and rebounder. The sophomore guard is averaging 11.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.

North Dakota at Northern Iowa, 7 p.m., CSN

Northern Iowa (4-4) is coming off of a blowout win over South Dakota State.

Senior Jeremy Morgan has been doing it all for the Panthers. He leads the team in points, rebounds and assists per game. Morgan is putting up 15.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest this season.

North Dakota (5-2) has two straight wins, including a victory over in-state rival North Dakota State.

The Fighting Hawks are led by Quinton Hooker, who's averaging 16.7 points per game this season.

Wednesday on CSN: Northern Iowa hosts South Dakota State

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USA TODAY

Wednesday on CSN: Northern Iowa hosts South Dakota State

Northern Iowa tries to break its four-game losing streak as they hose South Dakota State on Wednesday night. This game will be carried live on CSN with a 7:00 p.m. tip.

The Panthers (3-4) started the season with wins over power-conference teams like Arizona State and Oklahoma before dropping the last few games.

Senior guard Jeremy Morgan is off to a strong start this season as he's putting up 15.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 2.9 assists per game. 

They'll get a solid test from South Dakota State as the Jackrabbits have one of the best mid-major players in the country in sophomore Mike Daum.

The 6-foot-9 Daum is averaging 20.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this season as he's the frontrunner for Player of the Year in the Summit League this season.