Football: Wildcats’ 10th win leaves team on the brink of re-writing record books

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Football: Wildcats’ 10th win leaves team on the brink of re-writing record books

Dan Vitale lunges for the end zone. The senior superback sparked Northwestern's scoring with a 19-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.

Dan Vitale lunges for the end zone. The senior superback sparked Northwestern's scoring with a 19-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.

Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Dan Vitale lunges for the end zone. The senior superback sparked Northwestern's scoring with a 19-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.

Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Dan Vitale lunges for the end zone. The senior superback sparked Northwestern's scoring with a 19-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.

Khadrice Rollins, Sports Editor

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CHICAGO — It’s been pretty, it’s been ugly and at times it has been horrific, but “Wildcat football” has found a way to prevail all season, and now Northwestern is on the verge of making history.

The No. 16 Wildcats (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten) sit just one win away from setting the program record for victories in a season after dispatching Illinois (5-7, 2-6), 24-14, on Saturday.

“I’d be ecstatic for our seniors,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said of winning a program record 11th game. “Especially to see what they’ve been through. Just incredibly proud of them.”

In Saturday’s contest, NU went down 7-0 early, before rallying for 21 unanswered points and taking a lead it did not relinquish. The Cats’ defense held the Fighting Illini to just 78 rushing yards on the day. This comes one week after the unit limited the Wisconsin rushing attack to -26 yards on the ground.

The defense has carried the team all season, to say the least. NU boasts the conference’s fourth-best scoring defense, but third-worst scoring offense on the year, which has required the defense to maintain early, one-possession leads on countless occasions.

But throughout the year, the defense has made the plays necessary to get stops and secure victories.

“The best way to make an interception, make a big sack, force a fumble, is just to do your job,” senior defensive end Deonte Gibson said. “If you can do your job, you will definitely excel.”

One of the players who has consistently stepped up and done his job for the Cats is sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker. Walker leads the team in tackles on the season with 113, and with Saturday’s effort, Walker has the third most tackles for a loss in a single season in program history.

Although Walker’s on-field performance has been the talk of the town, Walker credits the defense’s ability to make timely plays to the senior leadership.

“Dean (Lowry) and Traveon (Henry) and Deonte, they start it up front,” Walker said. “They go out there and they say, ‘let’s make a big play. Just make one play to change the game’… They just bring a lot of passion, energy.”

Senior leadership has been key on both sides of the ball this season. Although Henry, Gibson and Lowry have been tasked with setting the tone for the nation’s eleventh-ranked defense, the seniors on the offensive end have had a tougher job.

With redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson starting at quarterback all season, the offense has struggled at times. Even with three consecutive touchdown drives early in Saturday’s victory, the Cats still only managed two series of 10 or more plays and went three-and-out five times.

Senior superback and captain Dan Vitale, who had a 19-yard touchdown reception in the game, pointed to the experience of the senior class and how that group created a mentality that “trickled down” to the younger players on the team.

“(10 wins) says a lot about the guys, and the maturity and leadership that the group had,” Vitale said. “We’ve been through it all. We’ve been through great seasons, we’ve been through two not so good seasons… The leadership and qualities that we developed over the last couple of years here really came to the forefront and we were able to do something incredible this season.”

Email: KhadriceRollins2017@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @KhadriceRollins

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