With only one day left before Northwestern and Mississippi State square off in the Gator Bowl, coaches and select players faced the media for the pregame press conference. Although a wide range of topics were discussed, for the Wildcats the talk surrounded the seniors, that elusive bowl win and the competition between the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference for supremacy.
SEC vs. Big Ten
There is very little debate which conference has dominated college football for the last six years. With six national championships in a row, the SEC is the conference to beat. Which is exactly why the Gator Bowl has so much meaning for the Cats and the Big Ten as a whole.
However, coach Pat Fitzgerald is not buying into the hype.
He said NU’s win over Vanderbilt earlier this year and the overtime loss to Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl have no bearing on his approach to Tuesday’s game. Fitzgerald said the wins over Michigan State and Illinois have just as much impact on the team’s preparations as the games against the Commodores and Tigers do.
“We approach every game the same way,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s about us and the focus is always on us and how we go about our preparation and how we play and adjust in game.”
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen talked about what makes the SEC so dominant against teams from other conferences, both in the regular season and bowl games. He said one of the big reasons is that SEC schools bring in recruiting classes that are toward the top of many rankings. Mullen also said the conference has great players and coaches, which leads to the higher quality of football. He said that directly translates to success on the field.
“We play pretty good football and it shows when you play out of conference games,” Mullen said.
The quest for No. 10
The last time NU won 10 games in a season, Fitzgerald was wearing No. 51 and roaming the field for the Cats, not on the sidelines coaching them. Yet he has the opportunity to lead his alma mater to its first 10-win campaign since 1995, when NU brought purple to Pasadena as Big Ten champions. Fitzgerald said his philosophy from any of the 12 regular season games has not changed despite the added importance of the bowl matches.
“We’ve really stressed doing what we do and how we do things,” Fitzgerald said. “The guys have really focused on the task at hand and hopefully we play that way (Tuesday).”
More importantly, Tuesday is a chance for the Cats to snap their 64-year bowl losing streak. Senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said the desire for a bowl win has driven the team the entire season, reaching its peak in the last month of bowl preparation.
“It’s really been a motivating factor throughout the whole month (and) kind of the whole season, (not only to) play in the postseason, but also to finish the job,” Arnfelt said.
As much as a 10-win season would mean to the program, it would mean even more to the senior class. Senior guard Brian Mulroe said winning the bowl game would be the perfect capstone to his career in Evanston.
“It would be awesome,” Mulroe said. “Ten wins would put a nice exclamation point on our careers and seasons.”
Seniors and beyond
Beyond winning 10 games and breaking the bowl drought, Tuesday’s contest could cement the seniors’ legacy. Mulroe said although a win would be great for him, he was more excited about what the future held for this team.
“It’s just the beginning for this program and what there is to come,” Mulroe said. “Next year and the years to come will also be very exciting for the Wildcats.”
Arnfelt said the end of his career could be the start of a new era of NU football. He reflected on how far the program has come in the five years he has been in Evanston and talked about how this year, the Cats were in every game. He said he is confident this team will improve next season.
“The sky’s the limit,” Arnfelt said. “You never look back, but you can always look forward and the program is going to take a big step next year. The senior class is going to leave it in good hands with the guys and the program is really on the rise.”
Tuesday’s game will be the end of the road for NU’s senior class. Mulroe said he has not thought about how he will feel after the game, having experienced four bowl game losses with disappointed seniors. He said it was a difficult situation to be in, but it has only pushed him to flip the script this season.
“You’ve seen senior classes before and it’s a tough locker room after those games,” Mulroe said. “We want to change that. I don’t want to be apart of another locker room like that.”