Northwestern still can't take next step

Few programs felt as good about themselves as Northwestern did prior to the season.

The Wildcats had reasons to be, too. They were coming off their third consecutive bowl appearance and third winning season. It had been five seasons since their last losing one. That was in their rear-view mirror.

Northwestern was consistently competing in the Big Ten and had become a true threat to the conference’s big boys. Gone appeared to be the days the Big Ten could worry about Northwestern only once in a while.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald also believed his last couple of recruiting classes were stacked with more talent than the program had ever seen. The future was thought to be even brighter.

To add to the bubbly feeling, Fitzgerald had signed a long-term contract, and the yearly concerns of another program swooping in and stealing him away were put to rest. His sideline attire would consist of purple through the 2020 season. The assumption was Northwestern had its man, and its man was only going to continue leading the program to higher ground.

The team’s confidence was certainly beaming heading into the 2011 season. With a proven quarterback, depth at wide receiver, an experienced offensive line, some talent returning on defense and optimism for a few newcomers, the Wildcats felt they could shock the country this season. They believed they were as good as anyone in the Big Ten and could realistically compete for the conference’s title.

Of course, that wasn’t to be.

In a season where Northwestern was expected to take that next step forward, which included -- more than anything -- winning its first bowl game since 1949, the Wildcats lost their footing and stumbled backward.

As a result of Saturday’s 33-22 loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, the Wildcats dropped to 6-7 on the year, suffering their first losing season since 2006. The bowl loss was their ninth consecutive, and the toy monkey, which wore No. 63 to symbolize the program’s 63-year bowl drought and was going to be destroyed if Northwestern had won Saturday, lived to see another day, actually another year.

Sure, in the context of Northwestern’s history, the 2011 season was an accomplishment. The Wildcats put on a Heisman campaign for Dan Persa. They were competitive in every game. Only one of their seven losses was by more than two touchdowns. They pulled off one of the year’s bigger upsets by defeating Nebraska in Lincoln. In the end, they reached their fourth consecutive bowl game.

And, yes, Northwestern had opportunities to defeat everyone it lost to. The Wildcats were tied with Army Black KnightsArmy in the fourth quarter. They led Illinois by 18 points in the second half. They led Michigan by 10 points at halftime. They were tied with Iowa after three quarters. They led Penn State by three points in the third quarter. They cut Michigan State's lead to seven points early in the fourth quarter. They even trimmed what was once a 23-point, fourth-quarter lead by Texas A&M to eight points.

But talking about plays and games gone wrong, injuries (Persa’s most notably) and the overall idea of what could have been of the 2011 season if everything had fallen in place is what you hear out of desperate programs wanting recognition without achieving real results. Knowing Fitzgerald, that’s not what he’s after.

Fitzgerald doesn’t want Northwestern to be measured by past program standards. Competing for a Big Ten championship every 10 seasons doesn’t make up for having a handful of losing seasons in between. Fitzgerald’s goal has been to create a program which wins year after year and never has to worry about losing seasons.

There are still plenty of reasons to believe Northwestern is headed in that direction. Northwestern’s youthful talent was on display in the bowl game. Sophomore quarterback Kain Colter, redshirt freshman defensive back Ibraehim Campbell, sophomore wide receiver Rashad Lawrence and sophomore return specialist Venric Mark are among the potential future all-conference players. The upcoming recruiting class should also bring optimism.

But right now, hours after Northwestern’s season ended with more losses than wins, something that hasn’t happened since Fitzgerald’s first year as head coach, it’s difficult for the Wildcats and their fans to look past 2011. It was a year that began with as high of hopes as there’s been in Evanston, but ended with a 63-year-old monkey having the last laugh.