Evanston was awash in rejoicing and Northwestern alumni around the world could finally celebrate. That's how 2012 ended and 2013 began and rightfully so after perhaps the 2nd most successful season in Northwestern football history. However, the story of 2012 could've been vastly better, amazingly.
So much so that head coach Pat Fitzgerald didn't want his players to forget just how close 2012 was to being perfect. On the whole though 2012 was all about setting the stage for this team being taken seriously as a contender in the Big Ten moving forward and if you take that as the goal it's hard to say 2012 was nothing but a success.
Let us take you down memory lane before we take you into 2013 the rest of this week, shall we....
Winning your first bowl game since the 1948 Rose Bowl certainly qualifies as the good of the season. So to does reaching a double digit win total as well. The tri-fecta for Northwestern and Big Ten fans was getting the job done against a SEC foe as they took down Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl. It was also Northwestern's fifth straight bowl game, an unprecedented position for this school to be in.
You can't compete to win Big Ten championships if you can't beat the big boys on the block. Let's face facts - competing for Big Ten championships are now the expectations in Evanston. Last season the Wildcats had the big boys of Penn State, Nebraska, and Michigan right where they wanted them but once again they escaped as victors.
Sure, the Wildcats (or should we say #B1Gcats, right?) had a W over Nebraska in 2011, but as the cliché goes - even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. That's why this is the bad of an otherwise great season. If Northwestern wants to be a serious contender and taken seriously on the national stage winning over Nebraska and Michigan are necessitates until realignment hits.
Well, we're going to follow up on "The Bad" we just talked about and it's because the ugly part is how the Wildcats lost those three games. In total this team was just 5:03 away from a magical undefeated regular season. That's brutal.
Northwestern was up 28-17 to end the 3rd quarter against Penn State, but gave up 22 unanswered points to the Nittany lions and lost that one badly, or so the final score of 39-28 would tell you. However, PSU didn't take the lead in that game until there was just 2:37 left in the game.
Against Nebraska it appeared the Wildcats were about to take the battle of the NU's once again, matching and beating the score of the Huskers nearly every time out. They built a nice 28-16 lead with 8:31 to go, yet wound up losing 29-28 on a 7 yard TD pass from Taylor Martinez to Ben Cotton with just 2:03 left on the clock.
In the final loss to Michigan (their 2nd heartbreaking loss to the Maize 'n Blue btw) the Wildcats were up 31-28 with 3:59 to go and after an interception of Devin Gardner gave the ball back to Northwestern it appeared this game could be over. Especially after they took the clock down to 18 seconds left on the clock. Unfortunately the defense couldn't hold up as Gardner completed a 53 yard pass on 1st down and with 2 seconds left in regulation the Wolverines hit a field goal to tie it up. They would go on to win in OT after stuffing Northwestern on two attempts from inside 2 yards.
In the end Northwestern had an amazing season considering their history and any time they win a bowl game you've got to be happy if you are wearing the purple, black, and white. However, it also left a bitter taste in the mouths of the players and coaching staff - knowing it could've been even more magical. So, while it was a success this team comes into 2013 with a great blueprint of what it takes to close out games. Add in a never say die coach like Pat Fitzgerald and the experience of 2012 and this team has lofty expectations of being in Indianapolis come early December.