Bowled over

Zach Silka and Zach Silka

DETROIT — Respect. Aretha Franklin sang about it, authority figures crave it, Jason Wright and the Northwestern football team (6-7) couldn’t get any of it.

A heart-breaking loss to No. 23 Bowling Green (11-3) in the Dec. 26 Motor City Bowl at Ford Field isn’t how the Wildcats planned on earning the naysayers’ respect. But the 28-24 loss didn’t exactly have them in tears, either.

Wright and his teammates took solace in the fact that they proved they could hang with postseason competition. They were, however, playing a school in the Mid-American Conference, which isn’t typically considered one of college athletics’ powerhouse leagues.

“We felt we didn’t have a lot of respect coming into this game,” Wright said. “One of our goals heading into this game was to silence a lot of the critics and put people’s feet in their mouths about us not deserving to be in a bowl game.

“I think we accomplished that. We didn’t have the result we wanted, but I think we showed a lot of people that Northwestern did belong in a bowl game.”

Coming into the game, much of the media and even other college coaches publicly criticized the fact that NU was selected for the postseason.

ESPN analyst Trev Alberts vehemently announced on air his displeasure that the 6-6 Cats were in a bowl game. Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak, whose 10-2 Huskies were snubbed, funneled his anger toward NU and wanted to know how a team like NU received a bowl bid over his 10-win team.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we have one of the best 56 teams in the country,” Novak said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I don’t think a .500 team should get in over a team that won 10 games. Are you telling me they had a better season than us? Baloney.”

Yet after the Cats went toe-to-toe with Bowling Green the day after Christmas and nearly won, all of the pregame arguments about NU not being deserving were thrown out the window. NU took a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter on a 40-yard run by Noah Herron and a 31-yard field goal by Brian Huffman.

Bowling Green didn’t even obtain its first lead until 11:32 to go in the fourth quarter when quarterback Josh Harris connected with receiver Steve Sanders on a slant in the end zone to make the score 21-17. But NU answered on the very next play when Wright returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards to set up Herron’s second touchdown of the game.

The Cats maintained their lead until 4:06 left in the fourth quarter when Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris hit receiver Cole Magner for a three-yard touchdown pass to give the Falcons a 28-24 victory.

After the game Wright took the opportunity to fire back at those who said NU didn’t belong.

“It’s just very sad that other people’s disappointments result in attacking other people’s fortunes and accomplishments,” Wright said. “It’s childish and I was disappointed that it happened, but I think we silenced a lot of those critics today.”

In a game where the lead changed hands three times in the final 11:32, all of the 51,286 fans in attendance experienced a memorable Big Ten versus Mid-American Conference contest.

“We are very satisfied with the matchup,” said Ken Hoffman, executive director of the Motor City Bowl. “These are the right two conferences and are the two conferences that dominate Midwest college football.”

While NU did come up on the losing side of this contest, the team did take home both of the postgame honors, with Wright sharing the MVP award with Harris and defensive tackle Louis Castillo winning the Lineman Award. Never before have both of the Motor City Bowl postgame awards gone to two players from the losing team.

If it was ever possible in a football game, both teams accomplished what they came to this bowl game to do. Bowling Green continued to gain notoriety for the MAC and NU gained the respect it rightfully deserved.