NU's success could be just starting

Coach Pat Fitzgerald pointed to the Gator Bowl as a potential catalyst for his Northwestern program. The 34-20 victory in Jacksonville helped illustrate his suggestion. The future could be bright for the Wildcats, and greater success could be on the horizon.

The memorable celebration included handshakes and hugs, singing and dancing, and even the dismantling of a symbolic stuffed animal. The sheer excitement exceeded a typical Gator Bowl.

"I'm kind of sad there is no confetti afterwards, but I'll deal with it," joked senior linebacker David Nwabuisi after the game.

One can excuse the Northwestern Wildcats if their jubilation seemed a bit drawn out. After 64 years of waiting, there was plenty to rejoice.

The trophy handed to head coach Pat Fitzgerald carried the reward of more than just one win. Northwestern ended run of bowl futility, one which scarred it since 1949. The 34-20 defeat of Mississippi State saw the Wildcats' clearing of their greatest hurdle. Now they can continue their sprint forward.

The recruiting classes keep improving for Northwestern, and that trend will only continue. Just one day before the Gator Bowl, it was announced that $55 million has been raised toward NU's new state-of-the-art lakefront facility, the football program's new home. Add to that having stability under Fitzgerald—locked in through 2020. The arrow is pointing upward.

"The sky is the limit for where our program can go," Fitzgerald said. "We've gotten off to an unbelievable start with our fundraising campaign, and we'll be way ahead of schedule in improving our facilities to where they are currently to the best in the country, in a setting that is unmatched and unparalleled in college football."

A 9-3 regular season illustrated Northwestern's potential, but the three losses painted how it wasn't quite ready to join the Big Ten's elite company. As the Wildcats prepared for their trip to Jacksonville, the accomplished senior class pointed to the Gator Bowl as a catalyst for the future.

Senior captain Brian Mulroe smiled after his final collegiate game. He fully understood what the win signified.

"A 10-win season is really big for this senior class," Mulroe said. "This program is on its way up."

When speaking to the media, Fitzgerald detailed what the program's winningest-ever class accomplished.

"I think [the Gator Bowl victory] speaks volumes for the legacy, and the incredible success and the foundation that they've laid for the future," he said. "And that will be our challenge as we move forward."

With such a task at hand, a critical offseason begins. Northwestern returns 16 starters for its final game, but young depth and a strong class of incoming freshmen will make the team even better.

The Wildcats are equipped to run for the Big Ten championship—more so than ever before under Fitzgerald. The victory on Tuesday could be the start of something special.

"We might not be putting the Big Ten Championship trophy in our case," Fitzgerald said. "But we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today."

The Gator Bowl's final whistle sparked an exuberant celebration, but also marked the beginning of the offseason. Greater success could be in Northwestern's future.

"Chicago's Big Ten team is going to come back as Chicago's Big Ten champions," Fitzgerald said. "And season tickets went on sale today. So we're already in 2013, so let's get to work."

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats. He resides on Chicago's north side.
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