Northwestern looking to end bowl game drought

Northwestern looking to end bowl game drought
December 30, 2012, 6:36 pm
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It was 1949 and the baby boom era was emerging. The average salary in the United States was a paltry 3,600 a year. A gallon of gas cost 26 cents. A loaf of bread was half of that. The cost of an average-size new home was about 14,000.

And in the sports world, Northwestern beat California in the'49 Rose Bowl Game.

The world just hasn't been the same since. Fortunately salaries have gone up, though bread, gas and new homes have skyrocketed 10-fold. But unfortunately, Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since.

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Not that the Wildcats haven't had the opportunities. Nine times since the win over California, Northwestern has gone bowl-ing. They've yet to hit a strike or convert a split.

But as they say in the sports world, this is a different team. It's a different group of players, a new attitude with fresh faces. There's a belief that this can be the group that breaks the curse.

The Cats have been close on a number of occasions. Three times in the last four years, they've come up a touchdown or field goal short. Seven, three and seven point margins along with an 11-point defeat dot the resume of the fifth-year seniors who will wear the purple one final time.

That comes on Tuesday when Northwestern tangles with Southeastern Conference member Mississippi State at the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

It's a new venue for the Wildcats. They've never played a game in Jacksonville. Fact is, they've only made four previous trips to the state of Florida for a football game - bowl games in Orlando (1997) and Tampa (2010) and one-time visits to Florida (1966) and Miami, FL (1968). All four resulted in losses but the current NU team was only involved in one of them, the Outback Bowl loss two years ago, a 38-35 defeat to Auburn in overtime.

What isn't new for Northwestern is playing in a postseason bowl game. The Wildcats are making their fifth consecutive postseason appearance during coach Pat Fitzgerald's seven seasons as head coach. While the ending isn't what Fitzgerald is looking for, the consistency in playing in a bowl game is.

"Ending our bowl-game losing streak is the next step in where we want to go as a program," Fitzgerald told the media following his team's first practice in Jacksonville. "The consistent success we've had in the program of being in the postseason for five successive seasons is something we're proud of. Winning a bowl game is the next step.

"We've been close in our previous four but as the ole saying goes, 'close is only good in a couple of things and football isn't one of them.'

"I'd be really ecstatic for our seniors. They've meant so much to us, leaving our program as our all-time winningest senior class. To leave with an exclamation point if they finish the job would be a strong statement for their leadership and what they've meant to build our program to where it's at today."

Northwestern has been oh-so-close to recording its first bowl win since the '49 Rose Bowl. It certainly looked like it was going to happen in the 2010 Outback Bowl in Tampa against Auburn.

Trailing by 14 points with three minutes to play, Northwestern scored twice in the final minutes, including having to convert a 2-point conversion with 75 seconds left after the previous PAT was blocked. Auburn kicked a field goal on their first possession in overtime and NU tried to match it, only to have the kick clang off the right upright. But a roughing the kicker penalty gave the Cats another opportunity. On 4th-and-goal from the 2, Fitzgerald went for the element of surprise. He called for a fake field goal, but it wasn't successful, giving the Tigers an unexpected win.

Fitzgerald said the team came to Jacksonville with one message in mind.

"We're here to win. That's pretty simple," he said. "When it's time to work, we're going to work to win and work to be champions. When it's time to have fun, we're going to enjoy ourselves.

"At the end of the day, it's about executing for four quarters. For the most part in our previous games we haven't been able to do that. We've played a half really well, we've played three quarters really well, but we haven't put together a full four quarters. And that's our challenge against a very good football team."

Offensive guard Brian Mulroe is one of the staples of a talented line that features three seniors and a pair of sophomores. He has a team-leading 39 career starts over the past three seasons and is one of the senior representatives on the team's Leadership Council that Fitzgerald created after last year's loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

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The 6-4, 295-pound senior has experienced all four of the Wildcats bowl game losses since 2008. He's determined not to end his career with another L.

"It's been tough the last couple of years, especially to see the seniors end their season that way," he said. "I don't want to see our class end our career that way. We don't want to be in that locker room crying.

"We're going to come out on top and we'll be yelling and screaming and celebrating. It really motivates you to give your all so you can finish with a win in a bowl game."

The underclassmen feel the same way. They want to end the bowl game drought so that it will stop being a topic of conversation. It would instead, enable them to boast of being the group that started a new trend in school postseason play.

"It would mean a lot to put an end to that streak," starting quarterback Kain Colter said. "I feel like everyone on this team is motivated to be known as the team to get that bowl win for the first time in a long, long time. The seniors have done a good job in building the foundation that we have. We're on the rise right now and a lot of that is credited to them.

"If we could send them off the right way and add another part to their legacy and continue on to our legacy, that would be great."