Northwestern emboldened to end streak

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Streaks have long been a sore subject for Northwestern.

The program worked for years to rid itself of the stigma brought on by a NCAA-record 34-game losing streak between 1979-82. Three Big Ten titles and eight bowl appearances since 1995 and only one losing regular season since 2002 have helped the Wildcats distance themselves from their pitiable past.

But another streak has attached itself to Northwestern. It's not nearly as embarrassing as the 34-game slide. Ironically, the streak has had a chance to increase because of the program's historic stretch of success. Yet this streak, like its predecessor, is just as unwanted.

"I'm tired of it," Northwestern center Ben Burkett said. "It's an old feeling."

Burkett and his fellow seniors have had the feeling for past three seasons as they exited fields in San Antonio, Tampa and Dallas. They've participated in three consecutive bowl games -- a first in program history -- but they've lost them all, each by seven points or fewer.

Northwestern's past three defeats are part of an eight-game bowl losing streak. The Wildcats haven't won a bowl since the 1949 Rose, a drought some have compared to the World Series lull hovering over a certain baseball team that makes its home about eight miles south of Northwestern's campus.

So it's understandable that even in spring practice, Northwestern players aren't shy about stating their top priority for the 2011 season.

"The attitude on the team is going to a bowl game is not a goal; it's an expectation," Burkett said. "We fully expect to be in that situation with the opportunity to win a bowl game next season, wherever that may be. It's time for the program to take that next step. We feel the program has been increasing, we're getting better and better over time.

"Frankly, it's about time we win a bowl game."

Pat Fitzgerald isn't worried about December or January right now. Northwestern's fifth-year coach is a die-hard White Sox fan, so he doesn't believe in curses or get consumed by losing streaks.

Fitzgerald admits the the bowl slide gets brought up a lot and calls it "one of those final negatives that we need to get rid off in our program." But to get back to a bowl, the Wildcats must fix several areas, including their attitude.

Fitzgerald saw the attitude slip in the final three games of the previous season, in which Northwestern was outscored 163-88. The team lost All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa for the closing stretch with a ruptured Achilles', but it lost other things, too.

"We just lost that edge," Fitzgerald said. "When we turned it over, we didn't get off the field. When we were taking care of the football, maybe we gave up an explosion play. When we got off the field on third down, we'd turn it over. We just weren't playing well as a team."

After Northwestern fell to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl, Fitzgerald challenged his juniors (now seniors), saying, "If we want to win championships and we want to win these kinds of football games, that class has got to step up."

Ten of Northwestern's 16 returning offensive or defensive starters are seniors. The Wildcats bring back a team-record 56 letter winners from 2010. Experience should be a strength, and Fitzgerald's post-bowl challenge hit home for veteran players.

"We have a lot of leadership, something that we didn't have a strength in last year," senior safety Brian Peters said. "The senior leadership is going to be huge this year. We're working hard, pushing each other and teaching the young kids, too. We're going to be a good football team as long as this continues."

Northwestern will have one of the Big Ten's most seasoned offenses this fall. Persa, expected to be fully recovered by June, leads a unit boasting depth at the skill positions and four offensive linemen with 105 career starts between them.

Expectations are elevated for the line. Persa wants to reduce his rushing attempts after leading the team with 164 in 2010. If the Wildcats revive a run game that has struggled since 2005, they'll be even more dangerous in the pass attack.

"Any time I've been around a really, really good team, they've had a really, really good offensive line and a quarterback who was starting before," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "It's huge."

The bigger questions come on defense. Although last season's unit was statistically better than its 2009 predecessor through the first 10 games, Peters admits the group struggled to control momentum as it blew leads against Michigan State and Penn State.

"The way we finished," Peters said,"it's regretful."

The Wildcats seniors' want to have no regrets when they walk off the field the final time.

"What does that mean playing in a bowl game if you're not going to win it?" Burkett said. "I tell everybody, 'Fast-forward to December or January, and we're on the other side of the ball, being team that's jumping up and down while the fireworks are going off.'

"To know that our class ended in a bowl game win, hundreds of guys have gone through here and can't say that, so it would be something extremely special."