Forman: Schapiro looking for winter trip to Champs Sports Bowl

Matt Forman

CHAMPAIGN – In 2007, Northwestern was a bowl-eligible 6-6 team that was home for the holidays. The following year, the Wildcats earned a berth to the Alamo Bowl, but lost a heartbreaker to Missouri. The next logical step? Make and win a bowl game.

“We want to go to a bowl. We want to win a bowl. We haven’t won a bowl, as the world knows, in 60 years. So I think we’re due.”

Those were the words University President Morton O. Schapiro told The Daily on Friday afternoon. He went on to say he wanted the purple to go bowling in Orlando, Fla., home of the Champs Sports Bowl. After Saturday’s win over Illinois, Schapiro’s Winter Break suddenly got warmer. And for his 9-year-old daughter, she has more of a chance to attend her so-called “Disney Bowl.”

On a day when the inaugural Land of Lincoln Trophy Game was played, the bowl pecking order has started to shape up nicely for the Cats, much like the way a child pieces together a cabin with Lincoln Logs.

In a similar manner, NU has learned how to piece together a win. It doesn’t take a stellar performance from senior quarterback Mike Kafka, although it helps. After all, Kafka didn’t throw a touchdown in a Cats victory until the 29-28 win over Indiana. It doesn’t take Corey Wootton wreaking havoc off the edge. Wootton didn’t register his first sack until week eight. And it doesn’t take the team rushing for more than 100 yards, since NU has struggled to establish a consistent ground attack all season.

But all of those things happened on Saturday, melding together like the three-quarter inch dowel rods in a miniature log castle. What held those rods together, the notches per se, were NU’s 99-yard touchdown drive on its second possession of the third quarter.

The Cats were locked deep in their own territory after Anthony Santella’s punt was downed at the 1-yard line. A false start penalty and snap gaffe made the drive even longer, turning it into what coach Pat Fitzgerald said “should go in the books as 99.75” yards eclipsed. Kafka got NU out of the shadow of its own goalpost with a quarterback draw. Then, Fitzgerald’s squad marched the length of the field in five plays. A 20-yard post-corner to Zeke Markshausen put the offense within striking distance, and Kafka buried the ball with a keeper over left tackle.

“The 99-yard drive was definitely a big statement,” Kafka said. “We went out there and we hit a couple big plays, and we were really able to go down and score. That’s huge momentum in this rivalry game.”

Right after that drive, NU forced Illinois off the field in five plays and responded with another long scoring drive. The Cats went 80 yards in 12 plays, as Arby Fields pounded the ball in from one yard out. The defense held the Illini to 48 yards of offense in the third quarter and contained Illinois backup quarterback Eddie McGee without difficulty.

Sure, NU allowed 13 fourth-quarter points, but it didn’t matter. The Cats held on to win the game, and Sherrick McManis made arguably the biggest play of the season when he picked off Jacob Charest’s pass intended for Jarred Fayson.

NU turned a possible letdown game into a season-saving victory. Schapiro understood the significance of the game.

“I don’t want the pressure of having to beat Wisconsin to go to a bowl,” Schapiro told The Daily on Friday. “If we lose (Saturday), then our bowl game is to beat Wisconsin to get to a bowl game. I don’t want to be backed into that corner, do you?”

Had the Cats collapsed down the stretch to the Illini, they would have been backed into that corner, held a 6-5 and battling in the Big Ten’s boggled middle group. Now, they’re sitting at 7-4 with a Senior Day home game around the corner.

With one game left in the regular season, Fitzgerald should turn to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to inspire his team: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.”

That task is simple: Take care of business next weekend against Wisconsin. That would put the Cats in warm weather this winter with a chance to do something it hasn’t done in 60 years: win a bowl game. The result would be a beautiful roof on the log cabin they’ve built this season.

Then, NU fans could take another Lincoln quote…

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

They would never forget the program-altering bowl win or the strong foundation for the future.

Sports Editor Matt Forman is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]