Six Isn't Satisfying

Northwestern's regular season began with plenty of promise, but that quickly went away as the team faltered during much of October. A Senior Day loss brought the end to a disappointing 6-6 season, and a season that had the potential to be great.

Now matter how you spin it, the ups and downs of Northwestern's 6-6 season can only be summed up with one word—disappointment.

The Wildcats are bowl-eligible for the fifth straight season and will almost certainly be headed to their fourth straight bowl game. However, if NU wants to grow as a program, 6-6 and a minor bowl game can no longer be considered a success.

Pat Fitzgerald certainly doesn't consider it a success—he said at the beginning of the season that he hopes his players don't strive to play in "the Pizza City Bowl—but a trip to Detroit for the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl seems like the Cats' most likely postseason destination.

"We've got a long way to go as a program to get to Indianapolis (for the Big Ten Championship Game," Fitzgerald said. "But we're not that far away. That's what's so frustrating to me."

The Cats were close; they were in every game that they lost. But, as Fitzgerald pointed out, it's the little things that matter in close games and his team couldn't iron out those details.

"We didn't do the little things today and that hurt us," he said. "If the punt was closer to the boundary, taking care of the ball in the red zone, the protection and communication issues. All those little things add up to success and unfortunately, momentary failure."

Despite the four-game winning streak, the growth of Kain Colter and the return of Dan Persa, this season has been defined by the momentary failures.

That falls on the seniors, the veterans who couldn't come through in the clutch.

Fitzgerald was quick to blame himself, his coaches and the younger players for the failures this season, but he portrayed the seniors more as victims than at fault.

"For how close we are and for us not to coach our guys well enough to get to that point is incredibly disappointing," he said. "We will coach our tails off in the next month. Those young guys that have been out there are going to come back out to practice their butts off. We're going to grind them up. When we find out who we're going to play, we're going to come up with a great game plan to send these seniors off as winners."

This is undoubtedly the best senior class in Fitzgerald's tenure as head coach and possibly the best since his own class, which played in the 1996 Rose Bowl and 1997 Citrus Bowl.

However, giving the seniors immunity for this season's failures is perplexing, not just because it takes away from the "team" concept Fitzgerald preaches, but because the class underachieved this season.

"A lot of the seniors made great plays," he said. "I'm bitterly disappointed that they didn't walk off that field as winners. I take that responsibility as a coach and we're going to work our tails off to get that fixed."

Did the seniors make the big plays? They put up flashy numbers at times and they showed off their talent at times against inferior competition. But this group didn't come up in the clutch when it needed to like it did in 2010.

The most obvious example is Dan Persa. The senior quarterback came back from an Achilles injury to put up strong passing numbers almost immediately, but he wasn't the same type of clutch playmaker that he was in 2010.

On senior day a year ago, he used his feet and his arm to burn Iowa in a 14-point fourth quarter comeback. On this year's senior day, he was sacked under pressure on his last play at Ryan Field.

There's a fine line between very good and clutch, and Persa couldn't cross it this year.

The wide receivers were the same story. Jeremy Ebert came up with some huge catches this season, but was relatively quiet in the clutch, save for the Nebraska game. The same goes for superback Drake Dunsmore, who had a monster game against Indiana, but did little the rest of the season. He's a Mackey Award semifinalist, but largely because of past success.

The veteran offensive line was inconsistent all season and it put together a miserable senior day performance to top the season off, allowing six sacks.

On the defensive side, Vince Browne virtually disappeared and Bryce McNaul was inconsistent. The secondary was horrendous at the beginning of the season, despite having two star talents in Jordan Mabin and Brian Peters.

That's as textbook a definition of underachieving that you'll get; the Cats had stars in place, but they couldn't meet expectations.

This class was good, but its team's record was mediocre. For that, it should be held accountable, but Fitzgerald has seemingly shifted the accountability elsewhere—to the younger players and the coaches

There's still the chance for this class to go out winners and get the program its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. This program is so desperate for a bowl win that a win this postseason would ease the disappointment of a 6-6 season, even if that win comes over a MAC team in the Pizza Bowl.

But for the seniors to go out winners, they're going have to be the ones to send themselves off that way. If they lose for the seventh time this season, there's nobody they can hold accountable except themselves.

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