Despite disappointing loss, NU should build off its successes (Column)

Tania Ganguli

There was jubilation on the field from a team which hadn’t won a bowl game in three years.

There were dejected tears and hanging heads from a team that saw a 22-point lead slip away.

But this shouldn’t be about Northwestern’s loss.

In a bowl game where nothing but reputation was at stake, this shouldn’t be about the loss.

At a school like NU, where going to a bowl game is an accomplishment, this shouldn’t be about the fact that the offense scored only one touchdown in the first half.

For a program which hasn’t won a bowl game since beating California in 1949, this shouldn’t be about poor Joel Howells’ disastrous day.

The week after a day when the college football world turned to the only Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup this bowl season offered, this shouldn’t be about the Cats allowing a Sun Bowl-record 50 points.

This should be about legacies. This season was a start.

Last year’s wins seemed flukish, 2003 was plagued by the Brett Basanez trail of interceptions and 2002 was a year when nobody ever passed against NU because the Cats had no run defense to make that necessary.

But this year’s wins seemed determined and brought the Cats to a level where a win over Michigan State seemed ordinary and a win over UCLA seemed likely to many.

At the end of an improbable season, the Cats ran into a UCLA team on a mission to prove its two-loss season was not a fluke. UCLA goes to bowl games regularly. A loss would have been disastrous for the Bruins.

I’m not inclined to give anyone credit for almost winning, no matter who the opponent is. I’ve never cut the Wildcats slack because they deserved an “A” for effort.

NU lost to Michigan, but didn’t get blown out. Excellent! Not really. They didn’t play up to their potential. Ohio State destroyed NU, but at least the Wildcats scored first, right? Is that what you remember about the game? Because I remember a linebacker scoring a touchdown.

Success isn’t measured by what you almost did, success is measured by what you actually did.

So when I walked onto the field at the end of NU’s 50-38 loss to UCLA in the Sun Bowl, I did so with the “saw this coming a mile away” face. I was ready to write the column about how Northwestern isn’t there yet, and still can’t handle the spotlight. I was ready to fill it with snarky remarks about how UCLA isn’t Iowa and that perfect onside kick was a one-hit wonder.

And then I saw something. Rather, I heard something.

Sobbing.

I turned around and saw freshman running back Tyrell Sutton holding senior receiver Mark Philmore. They just stood there for a bit, Philmore collapsed in Sutton’s arms as he wept while the guys from Westwood hoisted their gold helmets in the air.

There was NU’s future holding up its past on legs that didn’t quit the entire game and still wouldn’t. What was striking about that moment on the field was not the symbolic passing of the torch from senior to freshman, it was the pain both those guys felt by losing. Those tears showed the direction in which this team is going.

This should be about legacies, and the legacy of this team is that it’s been there and it isn’t happy with just coming close.

I’m sure it’s gone now, that feeling of disappointment and failure. I certainly hope it’s gone. But ironically, that pain is something to celebrate. Coming close hurts, and when something hurts, you don’t forget it. When you don’t forget something, you do whatever you can to keep it from happening again.

After the game Sutton said he felt like he let the seniors down. He said he’d promised them he would make this season memorable, and he thought he didn’t

You can bet he’ll remember this. He’ll remember what this loss felt like and he won’t want to return to this feeling again. They’ll be one step closer to that.

And next year, Sutton and his fellow underclassmen will have another senior class to which they can promise a memorable season.

That’s what this game should about: next year.

Reach Tania Ganguli at [email protected]