It was the goal.
So after then-sophomore Kain Colter guided NU to its stunning upset of Nebraska, the Wildcats celebrated an opportunity to reach the postseason.
Sure, with Dan Persa, they were likely destined for greater things. The star quarterback struggled with injuries throughout his senior year, but that happens.
It was the reality.
Northwestern followed with home wins against Minnesota and Rice, with that year's bowl game an opportunity for the nation to realize Pat Fitzgerald's value.
No one thought of Northwestern as a "6-6 team" during the 2011 bowl game. It's a sort of new start that often defines expectations heading into the following year. They lost to Ryan Tannehill (understandable given how bad the secondary was) but gave an impressive effort.
So let's redefine this year's goal.
In 2013, we thought Rose Bowl – or eight wins at the very, very least. NU returned nearly every skill position player from a 10-win bunch that ended the lengthy bowl drought. Many analysts placed them second or third in their predictions, and for good reason.
That will never happen, obviously. They cannot take back four painful losses; they cannot live up to preseason hype even if they win out.
Yet in this edition of the typically boring and sullen postgame press conference, Chi Chi Ariguzo delivered the perfect line:
"Right now we have to make a decision: Are we going to get better? Or are we going to let this linger?"
The Wildcats can rediscover their pride in the late stretch of this season, beginning–once again–at Nebraska.
Perhaps six wins marks the new goal, and if that leads to a bowl game in Detroit, so be it.
(I'm deeply biased because I'm from Toronto, so traveling to Detroit would be shockingly convenient. My Canadian background also gives me better insight when it comes to moral victories; we're full of them.)
I'll avoid using the term "pride" again and shift the tone: Yes, it would be a cataclysmic failure for Northwestern to miss a bowl game. I frankly can't imagine what it would be like for Kain Colter to miss bowl practice, or for this season to end at Illinois.
The team may not have been quite what we expected. But that's only one component: Pat Fitzgerald teams should exude mental toughness. They have three chances to earn one win, or two, before traveling to Champaign for an opportunity to sneak into bowl contention.
Before the 2011 win at Nebraska, NU was 3-5 — well on the fringe of bowl hopes. That team had nowhere near the same talent, experience or motivation. Yet they, for one game, made the entire campus and fan base proud with an excellent showing. It wasn't the prettiest season, but they finished with poise.
Forget the hype and the preseason goals. I mean, we've already elaborated on their passing. This team has been terrible in 2013.
But it seems hard to believe they can't salvage something: a nice win, a 13th game and whatever memorable things happen in the process.
Want to write off the season? Turn off the television. Give your tickets to Michigan fans (eh, that'll happen anyway).
There are four games left to play, and if NU flops, they certainly weren't as tough as we thought. The process begins in Nebraska, with the same goals from two years ago — but this time with much more urgency.