What If? We are the Champions
WNUR Sports Online Content Director Cameron Songer (@CameronSonger) predicts how Northwestern’s season recap would look if they won the BCS National Championship.
January 8, 2014
EVANSTON, Ill— When Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about championships, he wasn’t imagining success like this. One day after the team’s dramatic 24-21 victory over Alabama in Monday’s BCS National Championship Game, the Wildcats returned home to celebrate with their fans. For some, the reality of their accomplishment had not yet fully sunk in.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” said quarterback Kain Colter. “Monday’s game was just another football game for us, and I think that’s a big reason we can call ourselves National Champs. We just took things one game at a time.”
The journey wasn’t always easy. Northwestern was coming off of one of the best seasons in school history, capped by the school’s first bowl victory since 1949. “Expectations were high from the start,” said Fitzgerald. “But the fact that we were just a few minutes away from being undefeated last year was a huge motivator for our guys.”
Fitzgerald also noted the perceived slight from the national media, which barely had the Wildcats in the preseason top 25. The media coverage didn’t intensify until the Big Ten opener against Ohio State on October 5, which was the site of that weekend’s ESPN College Gameday. “We knew from the very beginning that if we were 4-0 before that Ohio State game, we would turn some heads,” said Fitzgerald.
The dream season for the Wildcats started out nightmarishly. “We played our worst 30 minutes of the season in our first game at Cal,” said Fitzgerald. Northwestern trailed by 10 at halftime on the road in Berkeley, and they appeared stunned by the “Bear Raid” offense of first-year Cal coach Sonny Dykes. The ‘Cats ultimately settled down, turning to senior running back Venric Mark, who posted his first of 10 100-yard games that afternoon. “That game was kind of the opposite of most of our games in the past,” joked Mark. “Usually, our problems came in the second half, not the first.”
After that come-from behind win, the motivated Wildcats steamrolled their next three opponents- Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine. The stage was set for a battle of undefeated teams, Ohio State and Northwestern. The game lived up to its hype.
“That one kinda stings a little, but we clearly put it behind us,” said Fitzgerald. In a double-overtime thriller, the Buckeyes handed the Wildcats their only loss of the season. In that game, Kain Colter injured his wrist and would miss the next three games.
“People thought we were done after that loss,” said Colter. “But Trevor Siemian stepped up big and kept us in the race.” Siemian displayed the benefits of the two-quarterback system Northwestern has used for the past two seasons by taking over the starting QB role in the middle of the season and delivering wins over Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
“Trevor made my job a little bit harder once Kain was healthy again,” said Fitzgerald about the growing quarterback controversy. Most quarterbacks who come off the bench for an injured starter are expected to mostly hand the ball off. Siemian did plenty of that, as Mark averaged 21 carries per game with Colter sidelined, but the passing game thrived as well. Siemian passed for more than 300 yards in the comfortable wins over Minnesota and Iowa.
Ultimately, Fitzgerald chose to let Siemian keep the starting spot. “In basketball, they say, ‘feed the hot hand,’” said Fitzgerald. “Trevor was on a roll and we decided to let him continue to start. Kain did a tremendous job of adjusting to his new role on the fly.”
Colter’s dual-threat ability was the key to the Wildcats’ win on the road at Nebraska the following week, which improved Northwestern to 8-1 (3-1). Colter’s 110 rush yards in that game equaled the total from Nebraska’s dual-threat senior, Taylor Martinez, and both players had there share of highlight-reel material in that game, a 31-28 Northwestern win.
The national hype began to build around Northwestern football during their bye week before the November 16 matchup against Michigan. “Some of the younger guys were really excited that the Michigan game was some sort of Legends Division championship game or something,” said senior defensive end Tyler Scott. “The other captains and I had to keep everyone focused for those two weeks of practice.” College football fans in Chicago and all over the country were starting to jump on the Northwestern bandwagon, as evidenced by record-high TV ratings and merchandise sales.
In front of a sellout crowd on a chilly November afternoon, the Wildcats avenged 2012’s overtime loss to Michigan with a 21-20 win. In that game, Venric Mark boosted his Heisman candidacy with a dazzling 160-yard, 3-touchdown show. Although Mark ultimately placed third in Heisman voting, Northwestern was quickly becoming a national favorite.
Two more wins to close out the regular season set up a rematch against Ohio State for the Big Ten title. Both teams had one loss and a top-five ranking, so a trip to the national championship was not out of the question for the winner.
“Of course we were following the other games during championship weekend,” said Fitzgerald. “We got lucky that Oregon lost the Pac-12 title, so we knew the winner of the Big Ten would play the SEC champion.”
Northwestern’s second matchup against Ohio State wasn’t the same thriller as the first matchup between the two teams, but the Wildcats outlasted the Buckeyes in a defensive struggle, 9-7. “I guess that was some classic Big Ten football,” chuckled Fitzgerald. “A lot of the credit goes to our speed defensively- Chi Chi Ariguzo and Dean Lowry, especially- for containing Ohio State’s Braxton Miller.”
At 12-1, Northwestern prepared to travel to Pasadena to face #1 Alabama and their Heisman winner, A.J. McCarron, for the national title. The last game of the season was another close one, with Northwestern prevailing, 20-17.
“I think a lot of the experts thought we were going to get blown out,” said Colter, who racked up 270 yards passing to prevent a third straight Alabama championship.
“That game was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football,” said Mark. He added that Northwestern had become a national sensation at the end of the season. “We were so sick of hearing about the Alabama dynasty. That’s what kept us going during that month before the championship game.”
The 2014 Wildcats will feature many new faces, but coach Fitzgerald isn’t thinking about next year just yet. “We’re going to enjoy this for a little while,” he said. “This crystal ball will look nice next to the Gator Bowl trophy from last year.”