Senior class tries to keep season alive

The Wildcats seniors aren't sleeping much lately, writes Steven Goldstein.

Damien Proby isn't sleeping much lately.

"You have some tough nights. You always look back at what you could've done differently," Northwestern's defensive captain said after Wednesday's practice. "You doze off, laying in bed, staring at the ceiling fan. The frustration sets in."

Like the rest of his senior class, Proby never envisioned his career with the Wildcats ending on a six-game losing streak and a scrap for bowl eligibility. And, like the rest of his senior class, he refuses to let a disastrous season spoil the next opportunity.

Northwestern needs to win this week. It's been the party line for the past month, but Saturday, it rings truer than ever: beat the second-best team in the conference and salvage some momentum for the program; lose and fail to make the postseason less than a year after 10 wins and the Gator Bowl.

Already facing pressure against one of the stingiest defenses in the country, the Wildcats' efforts Saturday will also reflect a huge swing in recruiting, national reputation and fan support.

It starts with the seniors.

"We all realize that it's our last home game. It's going to be weird. I don't think it's going to hit me until it happens," Mike Trumpy said. "But it's a win we have to get. Just another game we'll take on."

Last year's senior class left as the winningest in program history. This year's leaves as the program's most battle-tested. Proby, an unnoticed recruit with a heart murmur in his freshman season, fought his way up to becoming one of the best middle linebackers in the Big Ten. Trumpy overcame a 2011 ACL tear. For those that redshirted, the seniors have been around for the overtime Alamo and Outback Bowl losses, the rise and fall of Dan Persa, the Gator Bowl win and 2013's collapse.

There would be no better way to go out than another unpredictable twist; a win over one of Northwestern's toughest opponents to stay in contention for a bowl. As bad as the Cats have been this fall, it's tough to peg much on the seniors: Proby, Kain Colter, Tyler Scott and Jeff Budzien have been four of Northwestern's most productive players. Proby calls his class "the glue that put the team together," glue that will have to keep the team from completely unraveling in the final two weeks of the season.

"It's about minimizing that emotional level, so you go out and get a win. Everyone's families will be there, from various states. But you want to bottle that up so you still perform as you should," Proby said. One last game at Ryan Field will take a few years to settle in, Trumpy said, but one Big Ten win will immediately keep spirits alive.

"It's still a game that you need to enjoy," Proby said. "That's something we pride ourselves in."

Trying to have fun with it, for the first time since Oct. 5. Bottling up everything and making Senior Day count for something more than ceremonial sendoffs. That's the only way Proby can stop staring at that ceiling fan.

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