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Article updated: 1/2/2013 8:02 AM

Fans celebrate Northwestern's win, bear with NIU loss

By Mick Zawislak Tara García Mathewson

Bob Baker of Cary was hoarse minutes after the Northwestern Wildcats notched their first bowl victory in 64 years, defeating the Mississippi State Bulldogs 34-20 in a seesaw game that was close until well into the fourth quarter.

"Can you believe it? It's historic," he said over the crowd of purple-garbbed fans, who stood and stomped in the end zone seats for several minutes after the final whistle.

"They're all standing. They're cheering. The players are still on the field. They sang the fight song to us. It's electric here," Baker said.

Despite the lack of bowl victories, Baker was optimistic about the Wildcats chances but admitted he was nervous until the very end.

"We ended the drought. The 64-year curse is done," he said from his spot in the family section of seats.

Baker, and his wife, Mary Ellen have had good reason to attend most of the Wildcats games this year, as their son, Hayden, is a backup center on the squad.

Hayden Baker grew up in Iowa and attended Cary-Grove High School. He is a redshirt sophomore so Tuesday's Gator Bowl won't be his last.

"He didn't get in but it doesn't matter. We'll have a lot to celebrate tonight," Baker said.

Before the game, Des Plaines resident Liz Kravis and her family gathered with hundreds of Northwestern fans in a pregame tailgate at an arena a few blocks from the stadium as the cheerleaders and band entertained.

The atmosphere was festive and nearly everyone in attendance wore purple, she said.

"The feeling is positive. People can't ignore the long history of bowl losses," she said above the hubbub of buzzing fans.

"I think people are as hopeful as any time in the past year this will be a victory," Kravis said.

Aside from a Wildcats win, the game had other significance for Kravis, whose son, Bret, 22, played drums in the NU drum line with the band.

"It's his last band performance, so it's a milestone," she said.

Farther down the Florida coast, Northern Illinois University fans gathered for the Huskies shot at an Orange Bowl win.

Jimmy Silverstein, of Buffalo Grove, graduated from NIU last year.

He and nine current and former students, all frat brothers, spent 26 hours driving from Illinois to Miami for the Orange Bowl -- the highest profile game the football team has ever qualified for.

After an afternoon of tailgating, Silverstein was cautiously optimistic about the game, expecting somewhat of a close finish and hoping if NIU didn't end up on top, it at least wouldn't be an embarrassing loss for the team or its fans.

The group arrived in Miami on Sunday, with hundreds of other fellow Huskies descending on the city as well. From the stands, Silverstein said there was a lot of support for the underdog team.

"There's really a ton of NIU fans," Silverstein said. "They really did travel well for this game."

Gary Byrne, Bill Pohl and Bill Marra, all NIU alums from the class of 1975, made the trip with Dan Kjeldberg, class of 1986.

They knew an NIU victory would be a longshot, but they flew in for the historic game to be able to watch it live.

NIU ended up losing 31-10, to Florida State, but Byrne, of Mundelein, said the stands were still a good place to be.

"People are making noise, having fun and cheering them on," Byrne said.

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