EVANSTON, Ill. -- Twenty years ago, a Northwestern bowl appearance would qualify as major news.
Now the Wildcats are getting attention for what they're doing on the field in late December or early January.
Arguably no team in the country has been part of two more exciting bowl games the last two years than the Wildcats, who played overtime thrillers against both Missouri (2008 Alamo Bowl) and Auburn (2010 Outback Bowl). Both games put Northwestern on the national radar, particularly the Outback Bowl, which featured a truly wild ending and a once-in-a-generation stat line from Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka.
The only problem: The Wildcats walked off the field as losers both times.
For decades, Northwestern was haunted by streaks of futility -- an NCAA record 34-game slide between 1979-82, a 47-year drought between bowl games -- only to overcome them, beginning with its breakthrough season in 1995. The Wildcats have reached seven bowl games in the last 15 years and established themselves in the middle of the Big Ten pack, but they're dogged by another losing streak: no postseason wins since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
"You look at the bowl appearances we've had in the last 15 years; it's an unprecedented time in our program's history," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "There's been unfinished business in the bowl season. You look at the games, outside of a couple, they've been unbelievable.
"We just haven't gotten over the mountaintop. We'll worry about that down the road."
Fitzgerald has more immediate concerns in spring practice, like sparking the rushing attack, replacing three starters in the secondary and adjusting to a new starting quarterback in junior Dan Persa. And with only eight bowl games in team history, Northwestern knows better than to take postseason appearances for granted.
But after winning 17 games the last two seasons, the Wildcats expect to play past November. And they won't be satisfied with just another bowl invite.
"That's the only thing on my mind right now," senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said, "to continue to improve so we can get over the hump and win this bowl game. That's one thing I want to achieve before I leave here, and I'm sure it's something everybody, as a collective team, wants to achieve."
It's no accident that a sign displayed next to the stage in Northwestern's team meeting room ends with the words: "Consistently Prepare for Victory. Win a Bowl game." After the Outback Bowl loss, All-Big Ten cornerback Sherrick McManis, an outgoing senior, spoke to the team about what comes next.
"Sherrick said, 'It's one thing just to get there. Yeah, we went to the Outback Bowl and it's awesome, but we've got to get over that hump,'" sophomore running back Arby Fields recalled. "One of the cornerstones of our program is finishing, and we feel like we haven't finished. We get there, but we don't finish."
To get across that line, Northwestern must get more from a run game that ranked eighth in the Big Ten last fall. The Wildcats return all five starters on the offensive line as well as a running back group led by Fields, Scott Concannon and Jacob Schmidt.
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to identify a clear No. 1 back, something the Wildcats failed to do last fall, but Fitzgerald is willing to let the competition play out.
"I'm pleased with the progress so far of our backs," Fitzgerald said. "I said to the team [Monday] that the one group that's embracing what we're working to accomplish is our running backs. Everybody writes negative stuff about them, so I guess they use that negative fuel to get things going in spring ball."
The defense loses McManis, All-Big Ten safety Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, a multiyear starter at safety, as well as two starting defensive linemen. Brian Peters will step in at one safety spot, but the other position is up for grabs between converted linebacker David Arnold, sophomore Jared Carpenter and Hunter Bates and redshirt freshman Cooper Gerami.
Fitzgerald will lean on a linebacker group that he calls "as deep as we've had in a number of years." Senior outside linebacker Quentin Davie could contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall.
Northwestern showed last year that it could overcome key personnel losses and get back to a bowl game. The Wildcats face a similar challenge in 2010 as they aim for an unprecedented third consecutive postseason appearance.
"We make it to bowl games around here now," Davie said. "That's the standard that we've set already, so the only acceptable thing is to go to a bowl game and win one, too."