Pat Fitzgerald has watched his Northwestern senior class practice with added motivation as it looks to end the program’s 64-year bowl drought. The group’s next game will be its last in a Northwestern uniform. As for the collection of freshmen, the story is different.
“Shoot, the freshmen are just happy to get bowl gifts,” joked the head coach.
The Gator Bowl gives Northwestern the chance to stop its streak of bowl futility—the storyline which matters most from the purple perspective.
For the freshmen class, Northwestern’s infamous bowl record is an unfamiliar endeavor handed down. First-year superback Dan Vitale first learned of the program’s losing streak when watching Fitzgerald dropkick the metaphoric stuffed monkey along the sidelines of the Texas Bowl.
While Vitale has not been a part of past postseason failures, he is owning up to the responsibility.
“We’re part of this family right now,” said Vitale, speaking on behalf of his freshmen classmates. “I might not have been here for past year. But being part of this family, it has been passed down to me. I’m fired up, I’m ready to go, and ready to break that drought.”
The freshmen class has set lofty goals for its time on campus. The departing seniors set a new standard for Northwestern, reaching a record five consecutive bowl games. The first-year Wildcats hope they can top that mark.
“The goal is four or five for us,” defensive end Dean Lowry pointed as a goal for bowl wins. “We’ve got to keep doing what the guys ahead of us have been doing—just build on that.”
First for the freshmen is the Gator Bowl, offering the opportunity to play on the national stage in a tradition-rich game.
Each New Year’s Day for Vitale, he would gather around the television with friends and family to watch the lineup of games. This year, the Wheaton, Ill. native’s friends and family will be in Jacksonville to cheer him on.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on New Year’s 26,” said Vitale. “It’s cool; you get to play a game on New Year’s Day. Every kid is looking forward to that experience and wishes they can be there.”
Vitale vividly remembers watching the 2010 Outback Bowl, which saw the underdog Wildcats nearly knock off Auburn in an overtime thriller. The game led him to gain a heavy admiration for the Northwestern program.
“You really saw how hard they fought,” he said. “That’s something I really wanted to be part of as well.”
Growing up in nearby Rockford, Ill., Lowry found himself rooting on the local team during its run of bowl appearances, though it wouldn’t provide the desirable outcome. He entered Northwestern aware of its bowl drought.
“I knew about it,” he said. “But I knew it’s going to change—pretty soon.”
Northwestern’s freshmen feel plenty of excitement for their trip to the Sunshine State. It offers the opportunity to make history for their program, while building a legacy of their own.
“We just want to go out there and do everything we can to get that bowl win,” said Lowry. “It’ll be pretty special.”