Only one word seems appropriate for Northwestern after the 50-14 win.
It was not an excellent season in spite of the close losses. It was an excellent season including them.
The Wildcats could have collapsed hundreds of times, but they were better than that.
They blew a 22-point lead against Syracuse, and somehow rallied with a then-unheralded backup quarterback.
Midway through the season, the rain fell hard in Minnesota. NU could barely throw a forward pass, and the host Gophers were primed for an upset. That just never came to fruition.
And we can only imagine the devastation following Gardner to Roundtree in Ann Arbor. The Wildcats were 18 seconds away from a whole different conversation – one that ended in "championship." It was snatched away. Instead of fading, they came back stronger the next week.
To the sad souls who moan about the potential for an undefeated season, and the 12-0 record after three quarters, consider the difficulties of going undefeated. The Cats won close games and lost close games, and they emerged 9-3. That's nothing to scoff at. It never will be.
With so many Big Ten programs headed in the wrong direction, NU spent an entire season moving forward. The Cats competed with everyone, fighting teams like Nebraska to the end.
Meanwhile, conference foe Iowa played offense like it was 1962. Michigan State gave clinics in undisciplined nonsense. As for Illinois, well, there's a reason that halfway into a postgame column, I have yet to mention the opponent by name. In a season of B-1-G ineptitude, NU did not apply.
On Saturday, the Cats deserved a deep breath. They had fun. Bo Cisek played running back. Paul Jorgensen caught a touchdown pass. People were begging for third-string quarterback Zack Oliver to enter the game. They got that plus a dose of fourth-stringer P.J. Carollo.
This year's Illinois game resembled "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" more than it did past Land of Lincoln Trophy battles. Last year's edition, a Nate Scheelhaase-led comeback win for the Fighting Illini, felt like a distant memory by the second quarter. One program is trending upward; the other looks as though it needs to rid itself of Tim Beckman.
Whether or not Northwestern finally wins a bowl game, this season is inarguably a success. Here's the scary thing for opponents: the Cats are only getting better.
They return almost every skill position player next season. Their depth at quarterback is downright scary. Add four-star pivot Matt Alviti to the depth chart for 2013. Venric Mark, perhaps a top-five running back, will earn some much-deserved preseason hype.
If the equally deep linebacking corps can replace David Nwabuisi, the defense will not lose a step. If the secondary puts together an entire season – well, I'm getting ahead of myself here. Regardless, this has the makings of a preseason top-20 team, and heck, even those minor accolades are meaningful.
But this season was special in its own right. The Cats were relevant for an entire season. They broke hearts, lifted spirits and raised the legendary Pat Fitzgerald into a tie for all-time wins as head coach. To call the season "so close" is to miss the point entirely.
After the game, NU and its seniors had a moment to let "50-14" sink in. By the time players reached the postgame press conference, questions flared up from every direction.
The main one: What would a bowl win mean to this program?
You forward thinkers, you people doing your jobs, you proponents of "what-ifs": it would be an exclamation point. The monkey looms large, but that takes nothing from a nine-win season.
Fitzgerald delivered a joke about the bowl situation: "We're going to play an SEC team, probably in Florida in their backyard, (and) be an underdog by 75 points."
He captured the situation perfectly. Northwestern has not yet stepped into the elite, but it sure is getting there.
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