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Northwestern Wildcats face expectations, knowing nothing is given

The Northwestern Wildcats have faced expectations following a bowl win before and floundered. The team is hoping to change its approach and make good on them.

Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter had just led the Northwestern Wildcats to their first bowl win since the 1940s. The stuffing from a monkey plush toy still was strewn across the locker room at EverBank Field. It felt like a turning point for the program.

Northwestern had broken through for that bowl victory. They had gotten that monkey off their back. And so many key stars were returning — quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, superback Dan Vitale and a slew of strong defenders. The Wildcats started the following year ranked and eventually they hosted College GameDay for the first time since 1995 against Ohio State.

Northwestern had the lead in the fourth quarter of that game. As Carlos Hyde rumbled through a tired defensive line to give Ohio State the win — eventually by 10 points thanks to a late scoop and score that made gamblers in Vegas happy (or sad). But it felt like a program-changing day for Northwestern.

It was not. The Wildcats, suffering from injuries and perhaps some distraction from the ongoing union battle brewing that season, lost the next six games. They never righted the ship and finished the year 5-7. They missed a bowl game. And then missed a bowl game the following season.

The Wildcats did not turn that corner.

There was something of that similar feeling as players made confetti angels on the field at Yankee Stadium and celebrated another bowl championship. The team was losing some key senior players, but many of the key players to that bowl victory were returning.

Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson, two key players in the upset win over Pitt, would be back. The team returned several defensive standouts like Godwin Igwebuike. The schedule in 2017 does not include powerhouses Ohio State or Michigan (although defending Big Ten champion Penn State will make a trip to Evanston).

The stars seem to be aligning again for a special Northwestern season. At least, that is what everyone else thinks. The preseason predictions have Northwestern as a dark horse to win the Big Ten West — that game at Wisconsin looms large early in the season — and there are some ready to pull the trigger. Not many, but some.

As Northwestern opens up its training camp Monday, those thoughts about December are far away from the team’s mind. But not too far. It is still part of the conversation as the season begins.

Pat Fitzgerald has long held the mantra that his team needs to go 1-0 every week. He is not someone to look too far ahead.

Still, it must be hard to shut out the noise. Especially with those memories of 2013 and the struggles the team took after that supposed breakthrough.

This might be where the team’s struggles last year might play an instructive role.

Northwestern had high expectations last year too after a surprising 10-win season. But the Wildcats struggled out of the gates. They fell to Western Michigan at home in the opener — with Clayton Thorson fumbling the go-ahead touchdown through the end zone for a touchback — and then embarrassingly lost to Illinois State 9-7 on a banked-in field goal as time expired.

Fitzgerald said at the Big Ten Media Days he lamented the team’s poor start, admitting the team was not as prepared as he would have liked for those early games.

That is easy to say in hindsight. And true to form, Fitzgerald has kept the focus on Nevada in his media sessions rather than talking about the Big Ten as a whole.

Northwestern players seem to have taken that lesson to heart too.

“We didn’t come into every single game prepared like we wanted to,” Justin Jackson told Tristan Jung of Inside NU. “I think it came down to us as leaders, kind of failing our team. I think especially early on into the season we were looking ahead too much.”

Northwestern was able to right the ship after that 0-2 start. The Wildcats finished 6-6 and reached the Pinstripe Bowl. Their victory there seemed to validate their preseason predictions and expectations. They just dropped the ball early in the year to have their own special season.

The lessons of 2013 and the lessons of 2016 will certainly remain for Northwestern. Clayton Thorson, Godwin Igwebuike and Justin Jackson, the new leaders on this team, know what went wrong last season and why the team was unable to match that 10-win breakthrough.

Northwestern is still working to build some program consistency. The last four seasons since that Gator Bowl win have shown how delicate the program still is.

The Wildcats, as much as anything, need to meet expectations this year — an eight- or nine-win season and realistically staying in the Big Ten conversation — just to prove they can match a good season with another good season. That when these opportunities with senior leadership at skill positions come around they can take advantage of the opportunities.

That Wisconsin game on Sept. 30 looms. That game — and the following week against Penn State — may determine whether Northwestern seriously can compete for a Big Ten West title. It is hard not to look forward to those two weeks.

The Wildcats know they can still create a special season and achieves some bowl glory if they focus in on winning those first three games — vs. Nevada, at Duke and vs. Bowling Green. All three of those games will present their own challenges. Then comes the Big Ten gauntlet.

Nothing for the Wildcats is every promised or guaranteed. This is still a program seeking consistency. And consistency in winning.

Fitzgerald and the program know the expectations around them this year. Northwestern is not hiding from them at all. The team knows to meet them, it has to take care of its business each week. More than any year, Northwestern needs that 1-0 mantra.

This is a season where everyone believes Northwestern can do something special. The question is whether the team will rise to that challenge.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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