Northwestern 'knocking on the door' after bounce back 2020 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
One year ago, Northwestern finished last in the Big Ten West.
Friday, they wrapped up an impressive bounce back 2020 with a 35-19 win over Auburn in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl.
“I’m so proud of this group. It’s been a hard year for everybody in our country,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “At times we feel very spoiled as college football players and coaches, for sure I feel spoiled. I think our guys just went and emptied the tank.”
Friday’s win caps off a massive turnaround from 2019, when Northwestern went 3-9 and finished at the bottom of the Big Ten West (1-8). The Wildcats went 7-2 this season, beating rival Illinois for a sixth straight season.
Northwestern, who also made their second appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game in three seasons, have now won their last four bowl games.
The win is extra sweet for the Wildcats because it sends retiring defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz out a winner. Hankwitz, 73, retires having coached 580 career games — the most by any head or assistant coach in college football history.
Friday’s win is No. 400 of Hankwitz' career, 288 of which have come as a defensive coordinator. It was a fitting end to his career, as Northwestern's impressive defense held Auburn to 361 yards (61 rushing) and a 2-for-13 third down conversion rate.
“He’s the GOAT, like the guys call him,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s the best, he’s the best person. He’s so humble, he’s an amazing teacher. Even today, we’re going and adjusting all the way until the last series.
“We would not be where we’re at as a program without that happening and we’re just so thankful for them and so thankful for hank. He’ll be my [Elvis Presley] and he’ll have tickets wherever we play.”
Twenty-four years ago, Fitzgerald's Wildcats went 9-2 and ended the season with a loss to Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the 1997 Citrus Bowl. This time around, Northwestern — led by quarterback Peyton Ramsey — came out on top.
Fitzgerald gave credit to an "incredibly talented" Auburn team that recently parted ways with head coach Gus Malzahn while expressing excitement about the direction of his own program.
"We’re Big Ten West champs, we’re Vrbo Citrus Bowl champions," he said. "We’re knocking on the door to where we want to get this program that consistently [wins] Big Ten championships.
"To be in the Big Ten championship game now two out of three years, I think speaks about where we’re at. And again, the credit goes to our players — especially our seniors and our great staff. This thing is rolling and there’s so much interest recruiting wise, it’s unbelievable."
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