Northwestern's fifth-year seniors, who will play their final Big Ten game on Saturday against Michigan State, are linked to a tragic turning point in the program's history.
Most of those players were originally recruited by coach Randy Walker, who died of a heart attack on June 29, 2006. A couple of them, including quarterback Dan Persa and defensive end Kevin Watt from Glenbard West, committed to the Wildcats while Walker was still alive.
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Northwestern turned the job over to Pat Fitzgerald, who became the youngest head coach in major college football at age 31.
Using those players who stuck with the program, Northwestern completed the school's longest stretch of sustained success in 80 years. Win or lose against MSU, the Wildcats (6-5) will finish .500 or better for the fifth straight year.
That hasn't happened since Northwestern put together eight straight non-losing seasons from 1924-31. These fifth-year seniors have been part of 36 victories, the most in school history.
Fifth-year senior Jack DiNardo, a defensive tackle from Hinsdale Central, didn't have any second thoughts after the coaching change.
"A lot of the guys in our class were originally recruited by coach Walker," DiNardo said. "Then he passed in June going into my senior year of high school, and really, coach Fitz picked up right away with the recruiting of our class. I don't think we lost any commitments at all and we certainly gained much more."
Playing in a bowl game for three consecutive seasons is also a first for the program and the Wildcats are hoping to make it four in a row. An upset win over the No. 11 Spartans at Ryan Field would certainly help their cause.
"There's still some sort of negative stigma that comes out about Northwestern football from time to time," DiNardo said. "We're proud of how in five years, we've never had a losing season."
Fitzgerald is a perfect 5-0 on Senior Day, the last home game of the season. The run includes victories over No. 13 Iowa last year and No. 17 Wisconsin in 2009.
It's all about focusing on the task at hand and channeling the emotions in the right way, according to Fitzgerald. He admitted it will be tough to say goodbye to this class of seniors, but he's hoping not to get weepy-eyed until the bowl game concludes about six weeks from now.
"This was kind of that last group that was identified by Randy and the first group that came in as freshman with me," Fitzgerald said. "So, yeah, it will be emotional. Will it be Saturday? I don't know, but it has been the last five years taking pictures with those guys before game."
Back in 2007, Northwestern was eligible for a bowl game after going 6-6, but didn't get an invitation. Considering the Big Ten could end up with 10 bowl-eligible teams, but has only eight guaranteed bowl tie-ins, the Wildcats are treating this week's game as a must-win.
After starting 2-5 this season, NU has won four in a row, including a stunner on the road against No. 9 Nebraska. DiNardo listed that game as the favorite moment in his college career.
"Being our first time in Lincoln (Neb.), the atmosphere, the environment -- everything was great," he said. "Their fans were great. Our fans were great. It was just exciting being down there. We had a great locker room atmosphere and really took that on the field.
"We talk about this camaraderie we have. We get a chance to extend that for another month if we win on Saturday. That certainly means a lot to all of us."