The Wildcats would earn a 21-point win, starting a four-game winning streak, but that may have also been the beginning of a youth movement.
Fast-forward to December 31st, as the season ended in disappointment. The 63-year-old monkey will live on, as Northwestern is still looking to snap its bowl skid. As the program's winningest senior class departs with a gut-wrenching loss, Wildcat fans have a bad taste in their mouths.
The loss marked the end of an era, which brought Northwestern fans thrilling upsets, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and 36 wins, and helped raised the bar for the entire program.
Those seniors leave a great legacy in the NU football program, and now turn to the Wildcats' underclassmen to build upon their establishment. "Hopefully, the foundation of hard work we laid and that work ethic will show up in the offseason and in the kids that are still around, and it will push this team over the hump," said Dan Persa after the loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
Now it's time to look ahead. The future is bright. It's a new era for NU football.
The cover boy is Kain Colter, the likely starting quarterback, who vows to be the team's leader going forward.
"I'll be the first guy there, last guy to leave," said Colter after the bowl game loss. "I'll get all the guys ready, especially the younger guys. I feel like we need everybody to buy into this program from top to bottom."
The gifted Colter used his versatility in multiple roles with the Northwestern offense during his sophomore campaign. He rushed for 654 yards and nine touchdowns, threw for 673 yards and six touchdowns, and caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns.
Colter hopes to carry the torch of Northwestern's strong quarterback play, which has seen names like C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka, now of the Philadelphia Eagles, and of course, most recently, Dan Persa, who served as a mentor for Colter.
"I feel like I can throw the ball, work hard in this offseason, and prove (his abilities as a quarterback) to everybody," Colter said. "I want to try to follow in the footsteps of Kafka, Persa, and those guys."
There are many more reasons to be excited for the future.
True freshman running back Treyvon Green was impressive in his first season with the Wildcats. When Northwestern's running back depth chart thinned out, Green emerged as a prominent threat. He rushed for four touchdowns while seeing playing time in every game. Green will surely be an important part of NU's running back rotation going forward.
Same with big-target receiver Christian Jones, who showed promise in his freshman season. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder delivered a few spectacular receptions, showing his abilities to catch in traffic. Jones could become a go-to wideout in Northwestern's offense.
Redshirt freshman center Brandon Vitabile was so impressive during the 2011 offseason, that he pushed Ben Burkett—he of 39 consecutive starts at center—over to right guard. Vitabile put together a strong first season, becoming a key cog in the Wildcats' veteran offensive line.
On defense, Wildcat fans saw the rapid improvement of redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell, who recorded 100 tackles and was named a Freshman All-American with multiple publications.
There is plenty of promise to come, as well. Northwestern's newest verbal commitment, four-star linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo, has a chance to make a big impact as a freshman. Same with incoming freshman guard Adam DePietro, safeties Traveon Henry and Eric Wilson, defensive tackle Greg Kuhar, the rest of NU's talented 2012 recruiting class, rated third in the Big Ten.
Northwestern's recruiting classes continue to improve. Now six seasons into his head-coaching career, Fitzgerald has become one of the Big Ten's best recruiters, and it's paying dividends.
The 22 Wildcat seniors will be remembered for bringing a consistent winning tradition to the Northwestern football program. Names like Dan Persa, Al Netter, Jeremy Ebert, and Brian Peters will be remembered forever by Wildcat fans.
The future is now for Northwestern. The talent is in place, and the program is ready to reach new heights. What will the next crop of Wildcats do? What will there legacy be? We're about to find out. But the future is promising.