Wildcats aim for new bowl history

Pat Fitzgerald has heard every possible negative pertaining to Northwestern football, going back to when he was recruited by the Wildcats to now as the team's coach.

Other college coaches told him coming out of Carl Sandburg High School that Northwestern would never win consistently, and he would be better off going to their schools.

"We've erased that," Fitzgerald said.

As a player, Fitzgerald was part of two Big Ten championships and two bowl games, including a Rose Bowl. Since then, Northwestern has reached five more bowls.

The other supposed drawback about Northwestern was its academics. Fitzgerald has always heard that if the Wildcats were going to win, they needed to relax their high academic standards.

"We haven't done that," Fitzgerald said. "Actually, our academics are getting stronger and stronger. We just found out we had 54 players above 3.0 this quarter, a team GPA above 2.8. That's pretty strong for an eight-win football team in BCS football."

Finally, there's the knock on Northwestern's bowl history. That's the one Fitzgerald doesn't have a rebuttal for yet.

"I think it's the last negative," Fitzgerald said.

While the Wildcats have won consistently, proven they can contend with the giants of the Big Ten and will be making their fifth bowl appearance this decade when they meet Auburn in the Outback Bowl on Friday, Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since it defeated California in the 1949 Rose Bowl.

"This is the last lingering negative that goes to back to when Northwestern football was maybe not talked about in a positive light on the national scene or, more important, on the Big Ten scene," Fitzgerald said. "Hopefully, we can get that monkey off our back."

Northwestern's bowl journey has been full of heartbreak. In 1996, Northwestern was the talk of the nation as the underdog Wildcats won the Big Ten and reached the Rose Bowl to face mighty USC. Northwestern fell behind early and trailed 24-7 in the second quarter. It did fight back behind the running of Darnell Autry and pulled within 34-32. The Trojans ended Northwestern's dream season when safety Jesse Davis intercepted a pass late in the fourth quarter and set up the final touchdown of the game. Northwestern would lose 41-32.

The following year, the Wildcats earned a share of the Big Ten title and were sent to the Citrus Bowl to meet Tennessee and its star quarterback, Peyton Manning. Again, the Wildcats went down early before rallying back. They trailed 21-0, but Autry scored two touchdowns and Steve Schnur threw for another to tie the game. Tennessee answered back, and Manning finished off the Wildcats for a 48-28 win while throwing for four touchdowns and 408 yards, as well as running for another score.

In 2000, Nebraska took it to Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl. The Wildcats led 10-7 early in the second quarter, but Nebraska responded with 31 points before halftime and ran away with a 66-17 win.

Bowling Green waited longer in the 2003 Motor Bowl to crush Northwestern's hopes. The Wildcats led 24-21 in the fourth quarter thanks to a touchdown run by Noah Herron with 10:01 left in the game. Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris led his team down the field and threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 4:01 left. Northwestern couldn't score on its final possession and lost 28-24.

In 2005, Northwestern appeared as though it might roll to a win over UCLA in the Sun Bowl. The Wildcats returned two interceptions for touchdowns and built a 22-0 lead in the first quarter. The Bruins answered with 36 consecutive points and ended up with a 50-38 win.

Last season, the Wildcats experienced another tough loss in the Alamo Bowl. Northwestern led Missouri 23-20 in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers kicked a late field goal to send the game into overtime and won it by scoring a touchdown and holding Northwestern in the extra period.

"I think we're close," Fitzgerald said. "The games haven't really been blowouts -- maybe except the 2000 Alamo Bowl. Unfortunately, we just haven't finished the job."

On Friday, they plan to.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.