Football: Historic senior class looking for Senior Day upset against Iowa


Joanne Haner/Daily Senior Staffer

Defensive tackle Joe Spivak stands on the sideline before the Cats’ matchup against Minnesota. Spivak is part of a senior class with two Big Ten West titles on its resume.

John Riker, Sports Editor

When Northwestern’s current class of seniors graduates, their accomplishments will attest to a group that achieved historic success on the field. The class was the Wildcats’ first to win Big Ten West titles.

Still, coach Pat Fitzgerald believes the impact this class has made on the program extends beyond the wins and losses.

“Multiple Big Ten West championships, multiple bowl championships — that’s the football side,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “More importantly, the challenges we’ve been through over the last couple years, this group has been outstanding in their character, their leadership, their commitment to making our team better.”

The last half-decade has been a dizzying time for NU football. The Cats made Big Ten Championship appearances in 2018 and 2020, alternating with a three-win season in 2019 and a 3-5 start to 2021. In 2020, NU faced an uphill battle in dealing with multiple season postponements and pandemic protocols. 

When the seniors take the field on Saturday evening at Ryan Field for their matchup against No. 19 Iowa, the whirlwind of the past four years — and the fortitude of the group that endured the challenges — will have made this Senior Day one to celebrate.

“Something special is kind of our camaraderie, our brotherhood,” senior offensive lineman Ethan Wiederkehr said. “We’ve done a lot of things from winning the West, but also had bad seasons, with that 3-9 season (in 2019). So we’ve kind of rode the roller coaster together.”

For some members, their career trajectories are evidence of tremendous growth. Senior defensive tackle Joe Spivak arrived in Evanston as a walk-on from Darien, Ill. and has since emerged as a key contributor on the defensive line. Before the season, Spivak’s fellow players voted him a team captain and the recipient of one of the program’s highest honors: the No.  1 jersey.

Spivak said the seniors’ consistent work ethic is critical to their accomplished resume.

“These are guys that love to work and to practice every single day,” Spivak said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re getting ready for a Big Ten Championship last year, or getting ready for an Iowa week when we’re 3-5 right now.”

Others made an immediate impact. Senior wide receiver JJ Jefferson saw game action as a true freshman in 2018, registering 10 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns in 12 appearances.

Jefferson struggled with injuries in 2019 and did not play in 2020, but has returned to the field in recent weeks, seeing action as a rusher, receiver and returner. In the Cats’ 21-7 win over Rutgers on Oct. 16, the native Houstonian flashed his big play ability with a 32-yard reception.

Despite his tumultuous college career, Jefferson said he appreciates the opportunity to finish out his career with this class of seniors.

“It means everything,” Jefferson said. “Those group of guys left it all out on the field for me, so I’m gonna reciprocate that, I’m gonna leave it all out on the field for them any way I can.”

Jefferson said he believes NU’s culture became stronger through his four years not because of successes, but because of the challenges they faced together, especially over the last year. 

“I believe we got tighter in a sense, because you couldn’t see anybody else,” Jefferson said. “It was almost like a forced interaction, but not really, because that’s what we wanted to do — we wanted to be here because we want to see our people.”

Fitzgerald said he hopes his team can prolong the seniors’ careers for another two months by “playing more consistent football.” With bowl game eligibility still up for grabs, the Cats have a lot to play for in their final four regular season games. 

For the seniors, November also represents an opportunity to finish strong, starting with their last home game at Ryan Field this weekend.

“We didn’t start the season exactly how we wanted but we’re a group that loves to work,” Spivak said. “We have that value that we push, to finish, and really embodying that these last few games.”


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