The Wildcats earned that decisive sixth win on Saturday, beating Minnesota, 28-13.
"We saw the light at the end of the tunnel and that was our end goal," said NU running back Jacob Schmidt, who added a touchdown in the win. "We took it one game at a time and we got there."
Riding an unsettling five-game losing streak into the end of October, Northwestern never lost its focus. Four consecutive wins later, the Wildcats are making plans to play in a program record fourth straight bowl game.
"The credit always goes to our young men, they're the ones that did it," Fitzgerald said. "They went out there playing their tails off—especially our seniors. It's a special group of guys."
It wasn't the prettiest of efforts for the Wildcats, but it still counts as a win. Minnesota finished with 393 yards of offense, while the Northwestern offense scuffled at times, going without a score for more than 36 minutes, but the Wildcats' defense helped secure a victory with big plays.
NU forced three Minnesota turnovers—the biggest coming in the form of a Brian Peters interception in the endzone, which prevented a Gopher score.
"We finally were able to take some of the weight off the offense and decided to step up," said Peters, who added a forced fumble and fumble recovery, too.
The Wildcats were led by senior quarterback Dan Persa, who finished with 216 passing yards and two touchdowns. His second touchdown pass, a 28-yard completion to Demetrius Fields, coming on fourth down, helped give NU a lead, which it would never look back from.
Freshman running back Treyvon Green would add his fourth touchdown of the season, which gave the Wildcats a comfortable two-possession lead. Jacob Schmidt threw in the dagger with a one-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter—his sixth of the season.
Schmidt's fourth-quarter score would snap the Wildcats' two-quarter scoreless streak, snapping a skid of five possessions without scoring a point.
"We were not very good," Fitzgerald said of that mid-game offensive slump. "For a lack of anything else, they did things we expected them to do and we just didn't adjust very well on the field. I thought we settled down little bit at halftime and then we were just OK in the third quarter. We have a lot of things to clean up—it wasn't our best game of the year."
But as Fitzgerald later pointed out, only one postgame statistic really mattered.
"The most important stat is that we had 28 and they had 13," he said. "At the end of the day, stats are for losers."
The win came on a special weekend for Pat Fitzgerald, as Northwestern hosted the 1996 team—Fitzgerald's old team—which won its second consecutive Big Ten championship that year.
Fitzgerald was able to share the victory with his former teammates and head coach, Gary Barnett, as he invited them to the locker room for the postgame celebration.
"It was special to see them again today," Fitzgerald said. "We stand upon their shoulders—to go 15-1 in the Big Ten over that two-year span. They're a special group of guys and it's amazing to see how successful they are at 36, 37, 38 years old."
The Wildcats now turn their attention to Senior Day, when the program's winningest senior class looks to leave Ryan Field with a win. It will be a tough challenge; however, as the 9-2 Michigan State Spartans come to town.
"We're still not satisfied as a team," said Dan Persa. "Six wins is cool, we're bowl eligible, but Sparty is in our way."