Everyone has lasting memories. Mine are of Mike Hankwitz smiling, and of the seniors, who realized this would represent their legacy. That game ended the Wildcats' season, one that felt humble but perfect — as though something better was waiting for the program. When you win bowl games or championships, there's an obvious sense of finality: When it's all over, what do you do?
Northwestern chose to place everything in context. The seniors left a rising program. The Wildcats prepared to compete with just about every skill position player returning. So, to be cliché, the Gator Bowl felt like one chapter of the story. NU was expected to win handfuls of games, with everyone focused on the test against Ohio State and an opportunity to prove that 2012 wasn't any sick anomaly.
Now, the Gator Bowl feels different, like we want it back. We rushed through the sweet postgame moments and flipped our attention forward — to something that ended in this. Ohio State brought GameDay and left with a late victory; the Wildcats were exposed as frauds against Minnesota; they lost on a Hail Mary thrown by a walk-on quarterback at Nebraska; they probably hated losing to Iowa if Fitz does in fact hate the Hawkeyes.
Winning felt like hope on New Year's, and when it finally came back to them nearly 11 months later, it was something different, but something equally important.
Victory feels like Nov. 30, 2013, with Northwestern staring at a 4-7 record, three hours away from what should be a difficult offseason. When everyone stopped paying attention, they kept it together. They never formed rifts, they never betrayed the trademark Northwestern character and they finally closed out an overmatched opponent. In an ultimate consolation game, NU deserved to win tonight and everyone knew that.
You can't smile too much for fear of looking like a dick, but this one was meaningful. It was relief, it was Trevor Siemian's career-best effort, and it will be an easier transition into spring ball.
So where do you go from here? You say it's going to be all right.
Forget about the Gator Bowl, because we're not sure that bliss will ever return. Goodbye to the seniors like Kain Colter, Tyler Scott and Damien Proby, who "stared at the ceiling" as the season crumbled. Northwestern has to move on from 5-7 and reclaim its spot as a rising football program.
Whether that involves coaching shakeups (it won't) or personnel adjustments (it should), the Wildcats need to embrace the proverbial "underdog" status and prove that 2013 isn't the anomaly. If not, we're in for many more long and brutal seasons.
So, if I'm trying to pitch the future of this program, then here is what I say:
The schedule was tragically difficult. Michigan State turned studly, with the Wildcats stacked against Wisconsin and Ohio State in crossover play. Iowa and Minnesota improved, while Ron Kellogg of Nebraska happened to hoist one of college football's best throws this season.
The Wildcats were hit with injuries, first to Venric Mark, with his hamstring, and second to Venric Mark with his fractured ankle. Senior quarterback Kain Colter missed significant time, key defensive tackle Sean McEvilly suffered a rough foot injury and other high-level contributors were held out of action.
There was some luck involved: the aforementioned Hail Mary, the ill timed plays – like a fumble at Iowa – and missed opportunities spiraled. Michigan somehow pulled off a game-tying field goal in which the holder slid into position. You could fault the conservative play calling at times, yes, but these things just seem to happen to Northwestern.
Oh, but forget about 2013. Northwestern will return the majority of its key players again (before next year's exodus), assuming Mark is granted a medical hardship waiver. Trevor Siemian or Matt Alviti – perhaps both – should help the offense regain its old form. And the once-plagued secondary? Try three-way competition between Nick VanHoose, Daniel Jones and Matthew Harris for two spots.
Then, even with the recent loss of Dareian Watkins, Fitzgerald will welcome a recruiting class that includes perhaps his best running back prospect ever (Justin Jackson) and some vital defensive talent. Here's the new pitch to recruits: On a 1-7 team in the Big Ten, you have a chance to redefine the program's trajectory, a.k.a, play right away.
"We'll be back," Pat Fitzgerald said after the game.
He'll have to prove it, because this kind of debacle makes you question everything.
You're down, Pat Fitzgerald. Talent dissolved into disappointment. One brutal GameDay defeated turned into many more losses. And really, as I've said before, you're left wondering 10-3, 5-7 or somewhere in between most accurately captures the state of this program.
Criticize Pat Fitzgerald all you want – I'll take myself up on that offer – but consider one thing. He believes in Northwestern football and its on-field product. And this spring, continuing into fall, he'll sell this program, and you and I will buy into most of it.
The story's different this offseason. Much different. Mississippi State and a monkey turned into Illinois and the LOL Trophy.
Next year, to use the catchy phrase: Pressure's on. They need results and victories. They need to remind people just how successful Northwestern football can be, because not long ago, there was such promise.
Here, Northwestern, is what you do. You get back up.