Pat Fitzgerald is a Northwestern man through and through—a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker in the ‘90s leading the Cats to the 1996 Rose Bowl, an assistant coach in the 2000s, and then the sudden replacement for mentor Randy Walker in 2006 after his tragic passing. Fitzgerald has become the second most tenured head coach in the Big Ten. Big time jobs come open, but Fitz’s name is never mentioned. He is a Wildcat Man.
You often hear of a team being family, having a next-man-up mentality—being a brotherhood. Northwestern football truly lives these ideals, much in the style of the military. Northwestern fights with and for each other. So when QB Clayton Thorson went down with a knee injury, when LB Paddy Fisher was lost to a questionable targeting penalty, when Coach Fitz made controversial fourth-down calls that did not succeed, theirs is a program picking up each other and fighting as one.
Northwestern defeated Kentucky 24-23 to win the 20th anniversary edition of Nashville’s holiday tradition, the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl in front of 48,675 at Nissan Stadium. It was a game with as many twists and turns as an epic novel or feature film. Justin Jackson rushed for 157 yards on 32 carries with two touchdowns, earning MVP honors.
The courage of the team was tested right away when Kentucky took the opening kickoff and drove 67 yards in five quick plays to take a 7-0 lead on a three-yard Benny Snell run. It was tested again early in the second, trailing 7-3 when Jeremy Larkin threw a halfback pass to Thorson along the far sideline. In making a circus catch, Thorson injured his knee.
Described postgame as a hyperextension, Thorson was done for the game and was replaced by fifth-year senior Matt Alviti. Twice beaten out for the starting job but refusing to leave his brothers, Alviti literally ran with his chance. Jackson’s first touchdown from the five on the next play gave Northwestern a 10-7 lead.
Officiating was entirely too large a factor in this game. The Pac-12 crew made numerous calls that bordered on farce. The ejection of all-SEC Snell on the next possession, for bumping the referee appealing for an unnecessary roughness call, took the heart out of the UK offense. Quarterback Stephen Johnson battled a shoulder injury valiantly, but threw a pair of critical interceptions they could not overcome.
Kyle Queiro’s tightrope Pick Six midway through the fourth quarter picked up his coach after a dubious 4th-and-one at the two reverse pass call that failed spectacularly, and gave Northwestern a 24-14 advantage. A second dubious decision, going for a 4th-and-one at their own 39 with two-and-a-half minutes remaining, gave Kentucky the ball down 24-17 with a chance to tie. Four plays later, Johnson sprinted inside the pylon with 37 seconds left for a nine-yard touchdown, but UK Coach Mark Stoops knew what he was to do.
In a decision not likely made during the contentious SEC season, and one most befitting of this bizarre and unconventional game, Kentucky went for two. After two Northwestern timeouts to ensure proper alignment, Kentucky ran their best two-point play, a play Northwestern knew was coming, a rub route. But Northwestern’s timeouts and film study denied Kentucky in a play where both sides felt they executed how they wanted. The pass fell incomplete, a game of inches. And after recovering the onside kick, Northwestern had their third 10-win season in six years, and their second consecutive bowl victory.