The most accomplished senior class in Northwestern football history has one last objective.
The group of 16 fourth and fifth-year players are determined to close as the Wildcats’ first bowl winner since 1949 when they battle Mississippi State on Jan. 1.
“It would be great to end the season with an exclamation point,” said senior defensive lineman Quentin Williams. “That’s all we’re really focused on right now ... it’s been a good ride so far, but you’ve got to finish it off.”
The Wildcats (9-3) meet the Bulldogs (8-4) for the first time when they clash at 11 a.m. Central in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Northwestern has 39 victories in the last five years, three more than last year’s seniors -- the next closest comparable class. More importantly, this group has qualified for five straight bowl games in that span, unprecedented in school history.
“The foundation of success that they’ve created is unmatched and unparalleled in our program,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, also part of a school first as a member of NU’s 1996 Rose Bowl team. “To see what they’ve done on and off the field is incredibly motivating for the rest and underclassmen.”
Still, bowl victories have been elusive since Northwestern began reaching post-season play with some regularity starting in 1996. The Wildcats have lost nine straight since a 20-14 triumph over Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.
So a victory in Jacksonville 11 days from now would “obviously be a huge exclamation point for their careers,” Fitzgerald said.
But the benefits would also extend to the school’s reputation and help in recruiting as Northwestern continues to build a consistent winning program.
The nine wins in 2012 is Northwestern’s most since 2008 and includes victories over teams from four different BCS conferences. A 10th win Jan. 1 would make this Wildcat edition the winningest since 1995’s Big Ten champs.
“I think we’ve raised the levels of expectations for Northwestern football to the point where we are expecting to go to a bowl game each year, expecting to go to a New Year’s Day bowl each year,” said offensive lineman Pat Ward.
Ward, a Providence Catholic alum, wrapped up an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering this month. He spent two years at right tackle, then moved to left tackle in 2012 and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors from coaches and the media.
He’s also a first-team Capital One Academic All-American for the second straight year.
“We’re moving the program toward elite status, Ward said. “That’s where we believe we can be, we should be and we will be. I think we’re real close. We could have been there this year and with the guys that we bring back next year we could be there real soon.”
Williams, meanwhile, is a redshirt senior and four-time selection to Northwestern’s 10-player leadership council.
Northwestern’s football culture and academics were the attractions for the Pittsburgh native, whose older brother, Nate, played linebacker at Northwestern from 2007-10.
“It’s been great experience and be withe a program that’s on the upswing, but we’ve got to keep pushing,” Williams said. “I love that I came here, I have no regrets. I could have gone to Pitt, or a number of schools. I went to high school basically on the Duquesne campus. It was nice to get away and experience something new.”
Williams played in all 12 games to date this season and had 23 solo tackles among his 35, eighth best on the Wildcats. He also had 3.5 sacks.
Fitzgerald and the ’Cats wrapped up the Evanston phase of training with more game plan focus on Thursday before breaking for the Christmas holiday. They’ll return to campus last next Tuesday and depart for Jacksonsville, Fla. early the next day.
“(Thursday) was finishing up the game plan, going over a few things we wanted to make sure we exposed the guys to before we went away for break,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve tweaked some things as we went along. We’ll go through our typical game week when we get down there (to Jacksonville).”
Along with game preparation, recent days spent training at home should also produce benefits for up the road for younger and redshirt players who got in significant time.
“We got a lot of work done, a lot of reps,” Fitzgerald said. “All those guys (got) 300 plus reps of good work.”
A bowl victory would give Fitzgerald his 50th win, making him the winningest in Northwestern history. The seventh-year ’Cats coach is currently tied with Lynn Walford’s 49 wins from 1936-45.