Bowl win remains final hurdle for Northwestern

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Years from now, Tyrell Sutton will return to Northwestern as a distinguished alum and reminisce with head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

There might also be a little smack talk.

"We'll have bragging rights just as much as he does," the senior running back said. "We can talk about our 10-win season compared to his 10-win season."

Sutton's team would have something extra to boast about if it reaches 10 wins, a mark matched by only one other Northwestern squad, the 1995 version led by Fitzgerald. An upset victory against Missouri tonight in the Valero Alamo Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) would mark Northwestern's first bowl win since 1949.

Not even Fitzgerald and his program-changing team hold claim to that feat.

Fitzgerald could always counter Sutton with the whole College Football Hall of Fame thing -- the former star linebacker was inducted Dec. 9 -- but he'd be more than happy to let his player have the last word.

"It's been a whirlwind," Fitzgerald said of the last few weeks. "It's been a lot of fun to represent my teammates and to represent our great university. But that will all pale in comparison to getting our seniors this 10th win, to send them out the right away and to get over this last mountain of getting a bowl victory."

Northwestern cleared several hurdles this fall, sweeping its nonconference slate for the first time since 1963 and mounting its best start (5-0) since 1962. A program plagued by depth problems in past seasons showed it could overcome key injuries at middle linebacker, running back and quarterback.

The next step is to win a bowl. Five times since 1995, Northwestern has come up short in the postseason. For a program that desperately wants to distance itself from its miserable pre-1995 history, a postseason triumph is critical.

"It's huge for us," senior quarterback C.J. Bacher said. "We want to be that class to go out and break that trend and really leave our legacy."

When Fitzgerald became head coach in July 2006, he spoke only of one bowl and one path to get there.

"It's 2,054 miles that way," Fitzgerald told me a week after taking the job. "We're not bashful about putting it up on the board and talking about it. The road to Pasadena is attitude and investment, and that's what we're going to do."

The Rose Bowl remains the top goal, but Fitzgerald now has greater perspective on the steps needed to get there.

Win or lose tonight, Fitzgerald brands 2008 as a successful season, particularly given the late-season injuries the team overcame. Despite only one All-Big Ten selection (defensive end Corey Wootton), Northwestern finished fourth in the league.

Still, Fitzgerald recognizes what a bowl win can do for the program.

"Ten wins is a special plateau," he said. "Double-digit wins takes a good season to a great season. It'll be a huge step in this program's history. The opportunity presents itself. There's not a whole lot you need to do besides present the facts and then talk about who we're playing."

Despite falling short of preseason expectations, Missouri boasts by far the best offense Northwestern has faced this season. And though the Wildcats are much improved on defense, Bacher and his crew will need to put up points against Chase Daniel and the Tigers.

Generating offense hadn't been a problem for Northwestern in recent years. The 2005 squad, despite having the nation's worst defense, likely would be given a better shot against Missouri because of its fourth-ranked offense.

But the Wildcats' offensive production has fallen off this season. Bacher put up big numbers in 2007, but he hasn't shown the same firepower in 2008.

"We haven't really had an opportunity where we've had the shootout offense this season," Bacher said. "If that's what we have to do, we'll do it."

Added Sutton: "One of the things that we break it down on is, 'It's showtime.' We go out there and we want to put on an offensive show for the fans. That's what the offensive side is about, making plays and turning everything into a touchdown."

Sutton hopes his last time on stage leads to a historic result.

"We haven't won a bowl game in 60 years, so we want to put a great bookend to our story," he said. "We'll be the second team in history [to win a bowl game] and this senior class will never be forgotten because of it."