JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The monkey is in tatters.
Northwestern ended a postseason drought that lasted six decades before the run of defeats reached double digits.
The Wildcats won a bowl game for the first time in 64 years -- taking down Southeastern Conference rep Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl at EverBank Field. After taking leads of 13-0 and 27-13, Northwestern (10-3) resisted the urge to implode as it did in its 3 losses this season and had an answer for the Bulldogs (8-5) every time.
As a result, the Wildcats won in the postseason for the first time since the 1949 Rose Bowl. That was a 20-14 victory over California but since then, Northwestern lost nine bowls in a row, tied for the worst streak of bowl futility with Notre Dame.
Four of those postseason losses had come in the past four years, all under coach Pat Fitzgerald. He praised his team, especially the 25 seniors, for finally putting one away.
"This was a special journey," he said.
And, about the monkey.
Two years ago when the Wildcats played Auburn in the Outback Bowl, they were so confident they took a stuffed monkey with them to symbolize getting the monkey off their backs. But a heartbreaking 38-35 loss continued the bowl losing streak.
Fitzgerald gave the monkey to his equipment manager and told him to put it away. The monkey came back out for the bowl trip to Jacksonville last week and in the locker room after the game, players gleefully stomped, shredded and otherwise abused it.
The remnants were brought to the postgame news conference.
"This is what's left of the monkey," a gleeful Fitzgerald said.
It also was a game enjoyed especially by the Chicagoland players whose fathers hadn't even witness a bowl victory by the purple.
These Wildcats had to put up with the crushing burden of the bowl streak not only during football season but all year long.
"I'm speechless … I mean this is awesome," said senior offensive guard Brian Mulroe (Glenview). "This is what we worked for, every single day, winter workouts, spring ball, everything that we don't like.
"Guys were just pushing each other. It was awesome. It's a team win. This whole unit deserves this 10-win season and a bowl game."
Slotback Dan Vitale, a freshman from Wheaton who caught 7 passes for 82 yards, said the victory could be shared by anyone who played for the Wildcats since that Rose Bowl victory before the Truman inaugural address.
"We were playing for those people in the past who used to wear purple and white but specifically these seniors this year … that was huge for me. I remember Tyris Jones said back in the summer, before we went to Camp Kenosha. He said, 'put yourself in the seniors' shoes and know how we feel.' I think everyone did that today and we wanted to win and we got it for them."
And in unburdening themselves from the past, Northwestern players already were looking ahead.
"It's the first step to moving the program on into the future," said tailback Mike Trumpy (Wheaton). "It's hard for it sink in right now; it's really surreal. We worked hard and we never had a doubt that we weren't going to win this game."
Fitzgerald said he and his staff had to strike the right balance this season between ending the losing streak and starting a new one. Memories had to be both long and short.
"How can you run from it?" Fitzgerald said. "You can't."
Guard Neal Dieters (Elmhurst) said it was a matter of getting into the game-day mindset and not thinking about anything else.
"You've got to have tunnel vision once you kick it off," he said. "We knew what's happened in the past. We're always reminded of it. But the reason we won today is because we forget the past once we started playing the game in the present."
Following the game, Northwestern fans, players and coaches lingered on the field for almost 30 minutes, passing the Gator Bowl trophy around, taking photos and basking in the moment.
Fitzgerald ordered a singing of the fight song, and the band obliged. Everyone who knew the words sang heartily.
"We don't want to leave -- we can party right here on this field," said linebacker David Nwabuisi, who had 1 of the Cats' 4 interceptions and 6 solo tackles. "This has been a long time coming, so we're going to make it last."
And do it again?
"We've got a taste of this and we want to keep going," Nwabuisi said. "The upperclassmen will pass this on to the next classes, and Northwestern is going to win championships. You can bet on it."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.