Football: Northwestern’s bowl history, 2005-2011


It was a tough day for Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa and the Wildcats, who despite nearly completing the comeback, fell to Texas A&M 33-22 in the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

Ben Taylor, Reporter

Though Northwestern’s bowl history is painful in its own right, the period from 2005-2011 can easily be described as the most brutal. Over the course of seven seasons, NU has suffered five bowl losses, four of which have been settled by 11 points or less and two games that had to be decided in overtime. It’s easy to say the recent past is something coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t want to look back on before entering EverBank Field with his team on New Year’s Day to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl.

Below is a recap of each of these five bowl losses, covering every special teams blunder and missed opportunity the Wildcats have been a part of in continuing NU’s 64-year-long losing streak.

2005 Sun Bowl: UCLA — 50, Northwestern — 38

After a disappointing 28-24 loss to Bowling Green in the 2003 Motor City Bowl, the Cats were finally ready to get their first bowl win in 56 years against No.17 UCLA in the Sun Bowl. Northwestern finished 7-4 and was known not only for a powerful offense led by quarterback Brett Basanez and running back Tyrell Sutton, but also for a weak defense that surrendered close to 34 points per game. As a result, a 22-point first quarter tear by NU (assisted by 3 interceptions thrown by Bruins quarterback Drew Olson) may not have seemed like a sure lead, but it did give Cats fans hope that the bowl losing streak was coming to an end on this day. However, Olson quickly found his groove near the end of the first quarter, and with help from an impressive running game of Chris Markey (161 yards, 6.7 yards per carry) and Khalil Bell (136 yards, 7.2 yards per carry) he put up 36 unanswered points. The Cats fought back behind an Amado Villareal field goal and an eight-yard touchdown pass from Basanez to Mark Philmore to make the score 36-31 UCLA with 2:29 left in the fourth. Unfortunately, NU’s special teams play had been questionable all day, with kicker Joel Howell missing two kicks for extra points in the first quarter and a field goal at the end of the second quarter, and in the final 2:29 of this game the unit’s game was about to self-implode. Following Philmore’s touchdown and a later touchdown by Shaun Herbert, NU attempted two onside kicks, which were both returned by UCLA’s Brand Breazell for touchdowns, effectively sealing the Cats’ 50-38 loss.

2008 Alamo Bowl: Missouri — 30, Northwestern — 23 (OT)

Most NU fans quickly forgot the Sun Bowl loss after longtime coach Randy Walker died of a sudden heart attack in June 2006. A pair of seasons without a winning record meant Fitzgerald would get his first taste of bowl heartbreak from the coach’s perspective in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. The Cats headed into the bowl with a 9-3 record and ranked No. 23 in the land. They were underdogs to No. 21 Missouri and its power-packed offense led by 2007 Heisman candidate Chase Daniel and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. However, early on NU made itself seem like the team to beat. After an early first-quarter touchdown throw from quarterback C.J. Bacher to Eric Peterman and a second-quarter field goal by Amado Villareal, it looked like NU would head into the locker room with a 10-3 lead. But a 75-yard punt return from Maclin with one minute left in the half tied the game at 10. The Cats came out strong in the third quarter, with Bacher hooking up with Rasheed Ward for a 46-yard touchdown pass; however, Villareal missed the extra point, something that would haunt NU later in the contest. A touchdown and field goal by Missouri followed by a Bacher touchdown for the Cats gave NU a three-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Missouri tied the game with 2:49 left by a Jeff Wolfert field goal, which ultimately sent the game to overtime after Wolfert missed a 44-yard attempt to win as time expired. For Cats fans, the missed field goal finally made it seem like the NCAA bowl gods were working with them, but a quick overtime touchdown strike by Daniel and a fourth and long on the ensuing NU possession proved too much. The bowl losing streak continued with a devastating 30-23 loss.

2010 Outback Bowl: Auburn — 38, Northwestern — 35 (OT)

The 2009 squad may have been the most talented team NU had during this period, and it seemed promising that this bunch would give the Cats their first bowl win in 61 years. The Cats were 8-4 and primed for battle, but NU got off to a shaky start against Auburn. Interceptions on back-to-back drives by Auburn’s Walter McFadden, including an 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, gave the Tigers an early 14-0 lead. Though the Cats responded with a six-play, 67-yard drive capped by Mike Kafka’s 39-yard pass to Andrew Brewer, Auburn scored again, sending the Cats into halftime down 21-7. In the third quarter, NU quickly rallied with two Kafka touchdown passes to tie the game at 21 all heading into the fourth. Once again Kafka hurt his own cause by throwing another pick, this time to T’sharvan Bell on the Cats 48, which allowed Auburn to drive down the field and score a touchdown to take a 28-21 lead. After another Auburn touchdown to make the score 35-21 with 7:32 remaining, NU countered with a Kafka 2-yard touchdown run to make it a one score game with 3:20 remaining. Due to kicker Stefan Demos missing the extra point on NU’s last touchdown (he also missed a costly field goal earlier in the game), when the Cats reached the end zone again with a minute left they had to go for two. An impressive trick play allowed wide receiver Brewer to connect with Brendan Mitchell, tying the game at 35. A fumble on the ensuing kickoff gave the Cats the chance to win it all in regulation, but a difficult day for Demos got worse when his field goal attempt missed and sent the game to overtime. After Auburn started overtime with a Wes Byrum 21-yard field goal, Demos once again sent a field goal kick wide right, which should have ended it. However, a roughing-the-kicker penalty against Auburn gave NU new life at the Auburn 9-yard line. With a fourth down and five yards from the end zone, Fitzgerald decided to go for it all with a fake field goal attempt. Wide receiver Zeke Markshausen ended up two yards short, and Auburn took the Outback Bowl 38-35. In one of the craziest bowl games in NU bowl history, Kafka finished the game with a line that might never be seen again: 47-78, 532 passing yards and five interceptions

2011 TicketCity Bowl: Texas Tech — 45, Northwestern — 38

Unlike Fitzgerald’s 2009 squad that was flying high heading into the Outback Bowl, NU’s 2010 team could best be described as limping into its TicketCity Bowl match-up against Texas Tech. The Cats lost three of their last four contests to finish 7-5, and their struggles continued at the TicketCity Bowl. Although Kain Colter  scored a touchdown midway through the second quarter, the Cats finished the first half down 24-6. After NU kicked off the third quarter with a Demos field goal, the next play after the ensuing kickoff resulted in Texas Tech’s Eric Stephens making an 86-yard touchdown run to bring the score to 31-9, Red Raiders. But as per usual with NU, the Cats made a comeback. With a pair of running touchdowns from Colter and quarterback Evan Watkins, along with a 18-yard touchdown pass from Watkins to Demetrius Fields at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Red Raiders only led 38-31 with 10:33 to play. A Taylor Potts touchdown throw three minutes later extended the Red Raiders lead to 14, but a Jordan Mabin interception return on Texas Tech’s next drive brought the game back to a one score contest at 45-38. Unfortunately, the Cats gave the Red Raiders the ball back on the ensuing kickoff, and Texas Tech burned the clock in an impressive drive spanning over five minutes to finish the game and NU’s bowl victory chances.

2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas: Texas A&M — 33, Northwestern — 22

If there were any year NU lucked out getting into a bowl game, the 2011 season would be it. After starting off the season 2-5, the Cats needed to win four of their next five games to even think about bowl eligibility. Luckily, NU did just that, but despite the team’s success, the Cats looked like no match for Texas A&M. A slow first quarter saw only a Randy Bullock 24-yard field goal for the Aggies, and a Venric Mark touchdown run with 10 minutes in the second quarter gave NU a 7-3 lead. However, the next time the Cats saw points was in the fourth quarter, down 30-7. Like always, NU would made it a game with a Kain Colter running touchdown and a nifty two-point conversion pass from Jeremy Ebert to Demetrius Fields, followed by a Colter touchdown pass to Tim Riley, making the score 30-22 Aggies with 5:22 to play. But just like the year before against Texas Tech, Texas A&M ran the clock down on its next possession and converted a field goal with 30 seconds remaining to win the game 33-22. Although NU remained without a bowl win for yet another year, Cats quarterback Dan Persa finished the day and his NU career 460 of 633, establishing himself as the NCAA Division I all-time record-holder in completion percentage at 72.7 percent.

This is the fourth installment of The Daily’s Road to Jacksonville series leading up to the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. Check back Friday when reporter Rohan Nadkarni, Gameday editor Josh Walfish and Sports editor Dan Ryan all make their cases for who the MVP of this year’s team was.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Randy Walker’s first name. The Daily regrets the error.