Despite the memorable Gator Bowl victory, the Wildcats were a handful of minutes away from the championship picture.
They stamped "5:03" on their workout shirts and perform each exercise for five minutes and three seconds. That's how far NU was away from an undefeated season.
"These are the building blocks so those five minutes and three seconds don't happen again," safety Ibraheim Campbell said.
The three losses last season were heartbreakers. The offense stumbled at Penn State in a letdown game. The defense failed to haul in game-sealing interceptions against Nebraska, allowing the Cornhuskers to rally. And no one can forget Michigan, when Gardner-to-Roundtree stunned the Cats faithful.
"It's the difference between us going to the Big Ten Championship and where we were last year," quarterback Trevor Siemian said.
There is another side to the story. NU nearly collapsed in the season opener at Syracuse, and struggled to put away several opponents. But the process focuses on team building. During those stretches and exercises, they can harness the energy from defeat and concentrate on finishing games.
The "5:03" can be misleading, but for players, the key is to take advantage of future chances.
"We had a lot of opportunities that we could have capitalized on that we didn't last year," Campbell said.
It's hardly surprising that the Cats chose to open spring ball as early as they did. The program gained momentum with the bowl victory.
Siemian noted that the team has "buzz" surrounding it. He said students appear more engaged – a product of the recent success. NU should be listed in the preseason top 25, and already figures into the Big Ten title discussion.
So with snow on the ground outside, they are still eager to begin the next chapter. Campbell said the team appreciates February practice.
"It's better in a way," he said. "No one likes to work out without a purpose."
On Jan. 1, Mississippi State hardly put up a fight. After days of celebration, the Cats realized they could do even better.
Less than two months after the Gator Bowl, NU is back in action. Aside from several injured players, Fitzgerald said the quick transition helps the team.
"The benefit of playing in the postseason is that you never get out of shape," he said.
NU, though, will miss its departing senior class. The group brought consistent leadership and built team chemistry. While the newly-elected 14-man Leadership Council tries to fill the void, position battles are beginning to emerge.
If unproven players hope to receive playing time, they might have to beat out veteran players. The Cats return most of their key contributors from last season.
"We've got a lot of pieces back, which is encouraging," Fitzgerald said. "… We'll have to identify those new pieces and get them figured out."
Once they do, NU will be ready to take the next step. And those "5:03" shirts will provide constant reminder of what it feels to like to fall just short.
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