football Edit

Looking back at a decade of Northwestern football

Northwestern celebrates its Holiday Bowl win in 2018.
Northwestern celebrates its Holiday Bowl win in 2018. (AP Images)

It's the end of 2019, and also the end of a decade. And what a 10-year stretch it's been for Northwestern football.

The Wildcats entered 2010 with one bowl win and two 10-win seasons to their credit. They exited the decade with five bowl wins and five 10-win seasons.

They went 72-56 overall, for a .563 winning percentage that's the school's best in a decade since the 1930s. More than that, they went 42-42 (.500) in Big Ten play, the best in school history. They finished with a winning record in six of the last 10 years, won four of seven bowl games and posted a 10-3 final mark three separate times.

In other words, it was a pretty good decade.

While they didn't claim a Big Ten championship during the decade -- the 2018 team won the West division but lost the conference title game -- they did just about everything else.

We look back on the highs and lows of the 2010-19 decade.

Best team: 2012

Venric Mark was an All-American punt returner in 2012.
Venric Mark was an All-American punt returner in 2012. (AP Images)

The 2012 Wildcats finished 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten) to give the program its first 10-win season since 1995. Two of their three losses came by one point and in overtime. They beat three ranked teams during the season and only one of their 10 wins was by less than a touchdown. They also gave Northwestern its first bowl win in 64 years (more on that later).

More than all that, though, the 2012 Wildcats were the most balanced team of the decade. Offensively, they had Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian rotating at quarterback (it worked!) and the explosive Venric Mark in the backfield, and they averaged 31.7 points per game, the most in the decade. The defense was rock-solid, led by playmakers like DE Tyler Scott, LB David Nwabuisi, S Ibraheim Campbell and CB Nick VanHoose. And on special teams, first-team All-America punt returner Mark was a threat to take it to the house any time he touched the ball.

Best player: Justin Jackson

Justin Jackson became Northwestern's all-time rushing leader.
Justin Jackson became Northwestern's all-time rushing leader. (AP Images)

One day, Northwestern should erect a statue of The Ballcarrier outside of Ryan Field. All the running back did was rush for 5,440 yards between 2014-17, the most in school history and fourth-highest total in Big Ten annals. He was as steady as a metronome, running for more than 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons; the only other guy to do that in Big Ten history was Ron Dayne.

Running in a typically underpowered offense and with everyone in the stadium knowing he was getting the ball, Jackson specialized in making something out of nothing and could "make people miss in a phone booth," as head coach Pat Fitzgerald liked to say. His high point was the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl, when he rushed for 224 yards and three touchdowns and left a trail of broken ankles in his wake as he led the Wildcats to a 31-24 upset of Pittsburgh.

Best play: Bennett Skowronek's catch

On Nov. 10, Northwestern was trailing Iowa 10-7 with less than 10 minutes to go at a frigid Kinnick Stadium. The Wildcats had just converted a third-and-9 to earn a first down at the Iowa 32-yard line.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson dropped back to pass and lofted the ball down the left sideline, into the end zone. There, Bennett Skowronek, being closely guard by Iowa's Michael Ojemudia, leaped into the air and stretched out every inch of his 6-foot-4 frame to make a diving, catch. Touchdown, Northwestern.

Besides being a spectacular play, Skowronek's catch turned out to be the game-winner in a 14-10 Wildcat victory. It was also the score that clinched the Big Ten West division championship.

Best win: 2013 Gator Bowl

Brian Arnfelt holds up the Gator Bowl trophy.
Brian Arnfelt holds up the Gator Bowl trophy. (AP Images)

Northwestern made bowl games fairly regularly after the Renaissance of 1995 -- the problem was that the Wildcats didn't win any of them. After winning the 1949 Rose Bowl, the Wildcats lost their next nine bowls. It was the longest bowl losing streak in the country and gave the program more than a monkey on its back. It was more like a gorilla. A 64-year-old gorilla.

On Jan. 1, 2013, the Wildcats finally slayed that gorilla. They jumped out to an early 13-0 lead but Mississippi State came back to tie the game at 13 in the third quarter. Northwestern outscored the Bulldogs 21-7 the rest of the way to give the Cats their first bowl win since Harry S. Truman was president. Four different Wildcats scored touchdowns and kicker Jeff Budzien kicked two field goals.

Since that game, Northwestern has won three of four bowls.

Best upset: 2011 Nebraska

Kain Colter ran for two TDs and threw for one in NU's upset of Nebraska.
Kain Colter ran for two TDs and threw for one in NU's upset of Nebraska.

Northwestern was just 3-5 and 1-4 in the Big Ten when they traveled to Lincoln on Nov. 5 to take on No. 9 Nebraska. No one expected the Wildcats to be the first Big Ten team to win a game at Memorial Stadium in the Huskers' first year in the conference, but that’s exactly what happened.

Colter hit Jeremy Ebert on a short slant and Ebert took it 81 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown and a 21-10 lead that silenced the Big Red Sea. Then, Colter sealed the deal with a one-yard TD that gave NU a 10-point lead with 1:34 left. In all, Colter, who played the second half for injured starter Dan Persa, accounted for 172 yards of offense and three touchdowns.

The 28-25 win remains the last time NU beat a Top 10 team.

Best comeback: 2018 Holiday Bowl

Jared McGee scored on an 82-yard fumble return.
Jared McGee scored on an 82-yard fumble return. (AP Images)

Northwestern trailed No. 17 Utah 20-3 at halftime of the 2018 Holiday Bowl and looked dead in the water, having generated just 126 yards of total offense in the first half. But the Wildcats blitzed the Utes with 28 unanswered points, scoring four TDs off of three turnovers, to win going away, 31-20.

It was a dizzying 15 minutes for NU. A Blake Gallagher interception led to a Clayton Thorson-to-Riley Lees TD pass. A Joe Gaziano sack and forced fumble led to an 82-yard Jared McGee fumble return for a TD. A Trae Williams forced fumble and JR Pace fumble return led to a Thorson-to-Trey Klock TD. And finally, Lees ran one in to cap the scoring.

The coup-de-grace came after the game, when Fitzgerald announced to the world that he was a Wildcat for life.

Toughest loss: 2013 Ohio State

Dean Lowry and Ibraheim Campbell tackle OSU's Carlos Hyde.
Dean Lowry and Ibraheim Campbell tackle OSU's Carlos Hyde. (USA Today Images)

Northwestern was 4-0 and ranked 16th in the country. Ohio State was 4-0 and ranked 4th. ESPN College GameDay broadcast its show from Evanston that morning, and the eyes of the college football world was on a sold-out Ryan Field that night.

The Wildcats and Buckeyes went back-and-forth until the play that decided the game late in the fourth quarter. Trailing 34-30, Northwestern faced a fourth-and-1 at the OSU 34-yard line. Colter dropped the snap, but picked it up and lunged into the line. Many in the stands thought he got it; the referee marked him short with 2:43 left in the game. Northwestern got the ball back with 21 seconds left but Ohio State scored on a fumble return on the last play to make the final score 40-30.

What made the loss even worse is that NU, bitten by injuries, went into a death spiral after that game, losing the next seven in a row, many of them in heartbreaking fashion.

Highest point: 2018 Big Ten championship game  

Clayton Thorson threw for 267 yards and a TD against Ohio State.
Clayton Thorson threw for 267 yards and a TD against Ohio State. (AP Images)

Yes, the highest point of the decade was a game the Wildcats lost. How Northwestern is that?

The Wildcats won eight of nine Big Ten games to claim the West division title and earn a berth in the conference championship game in Indianapolis, where they took on big, bad No. 6 Ohio State. Northwestern trailed 24-7 at the half but came storming back with two touchdowns to cut the deficit to 24-21 midway through the third quarter. But the Wildcats had no answer for OSU QB Dwayne Haskins, who threw for 499 yards and five TDs in the Buckeyes' 45-24 win.

Still, the Wildcats played on the game's biggest stage and gave their fans -- a small but vocal contingent in a stadium that was about 80% red -- a reason to roar.

Lowest point: 2016 Illinois State

Clayton Thorson and Northwestern managed just 277 yards of offense vs. Illinois State.
Clayton Thorson and Northwestern managed just 277 yards of offense vs. Illinois State. (AP Images)

Coming off of a 10-win season, Northwestern opened the season with a one-point loss to Western Michigan from the MAC. Then, the unthinkable happened: a 9-7 loss to Illinois State, a (gasp) FCS team. And not even a particularly good FCS team, either: the Redbirds finished 6-6.

ISU outplayed the Wildcats, too, outgaining them by nearly 100 yards as the NU offense managed just 277 yards. Still, Northwestern clung to a 7-6 lead before Sean Slattery kicked a 33-yard field goal on the last play of the game to give the Redbirds the win.

Northwestern bounced back and won four of its next five and capped the season with a Pinstripe Bowl win. But that Saturday remains the darkest of the Fitzgerald Era.

Best off-the-field story: The Walter Athletics Center

A view of Lake Michigan from inside Ryan Fieldhouse.
A view of Lake Michigan from inside Ryan Fieldhouse. (@coachfitz51)

After decades of having some of the worst facilities in all of Division I, the Wildcats suddenly had the best after sinking $270-million into their gleaming palace, dubbed the Fitz Carlton, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Ryan Fieldhouse, the Wildcats' indoor practice home, was unveiled in April of 2018. The Walter Athletics Center, which houses locker rooms, training and academic facilities, and just about everything else, opened a few months later.

Fitzgerald called it a "game-changer" for his program. Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports called it the nicest facility in the nation. We call it the symbol of just how far Northwestern's football program has come.

Year-by-year results

Northwestern 2010-19
Year Record Bowl Note


7-6 (3-5)

Ticket City vs. Texas Tech: L, 45-38

Cats were 7-3 when first-team All-B1G QB Dan Persa tore his Achilles vs. Iowa


6-7 (3-5)

Meineke Car Care vs. Texas A&M: L, 33-22

Streaky team won 2, lost 5, won 4, lost 2


10-3 (5-3)

Gator Bowl vs. MIss State: W, 34-20

Posted first 10-win season since '95, won first bowl game since '49


5-7 (1-7)


Ranked 16th before loss to #4 Ohio State started 7-game losing streak


5-7 (3-5)


Needed win in finale vs. Illinois for bowl berth but lost 47-33


10-3 (6-2)

Outback vs. Tennessee: L, 45-6

Won 4 1-score games, but 3 losses were by a combined score of 123-16


7-6 (5-4)

Pinstripe vs. Pittsburgh: W, 31-24

Began season with 2 ugly losses, finished with upset bowl win


10-3 (7-2)

Music City vs. Kentucky: W, 24-23

Started 2-3 and finished on 8-game winning streak


9-5 (8-1)

Holiday vs. Utah: W, 31-20

Started 1-3, won 7 of 8 to win West division and play in B1G title game


3-9 (1-8)


Scored 10 or fewer points 7 times; won finale vs. Illinois to avoid winless B1G mark