It would only be fitting for the winningest senior class in Northwestern history to leave Ryan Field with another victory. On Saturday, the Wildcats aim to do that, as they face No. 11 Michigan State.
Wildcat fans may associate Northwestern’s senior class with its program-record 36 total wins, or five-straight seasons of reaching bowl eligibility, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald will remember the group of 25 seniors for so much more.
“It’s the whole package,” said Fitzgerald. “In the classroom, unbelievable. On the field, the most successful group in our program’s history. The generosity, the way they’ve given back to the greater-Northwestern, Evanston, and Chicago community, they have raised the bar, they’ve set the expectations now for the future.”
Senior Day brings out many emotions in Fitzgerald. The former Wildcat linebacker joked, he doesn’t remember what happened during his final home game, but now sees the day differently from a head coach’s perspective.
“When I get a chance to take that picture which each young man and each family, it takes me back to when we first identified that young man,” said Fitzgerald. “All the steps during recruiting, being in their living room at some point. It’s a little bit different when it’s more of that team complex than the individual aspect.”
The group came together in 2007, marking Pat Fitzgerald’s first recruiting class as head coach. Much of the recruiting class was first identified by Randy Walker, who died suddenly in June of 2006. Walker’s last verbal commitment was two-star quarterback Dan Persa—an undersized quarterback from Bethlehem, PA., who he decided to take a shot on.
Now a senior, Persa has accumulated 4,723 career passing yards and 32 touchdown passes in his 21 career starts.
Persa does not anticipate the emotions to kick in on Saturday, but knows his Senior Day will be a nice memory in a decorated career.
“Looking back on it, I think it will mean a lot to me knowing it has been a long five years with a lot of ups and downs, but a pretty successful five years,” said Persa.
Eden Prairie, MN. native Bryce McNaul first received a scholarship offer from Randy Walker back in March of 2006, but developed a strong relationship with then-recruiting coordinator Pat Fitzgerald. The highly-touted linebacker had double-digit scholarship offers as a senior, but would become one of Fitzgerald’s first verbal commitments as a head coach.
Looking back on his career, McNaul is having a hard time believing his college career is nearly completed.
‘It’s really hard to believe—it’’s cliché,” said McNaul. “I’ve had a great career at Northwestern, I’ve learned a lot, grown a lot. I hope that we send out me and my teammates right here at Ryan Field with a big W.”
The Northwestern senior class has been a part of many memorable moments. There were the back-to-back overtime wins over Michigan State and Minnesota as freshmen. The 26-point comeback over Indiana in 2009, and the upset over unbeaten Iowa. This season, a thrilling win over No. 9 Nebraska in Lincoln propelled the Wildcats to reach bowl eligibility once again.
In five seasons, the Wildcat seniors have reached 36 total wins and helped reshape the NU football program forever.
“They’ve raised the bar, they’ve raised the expectations in this program,” Fitzgerald said of the seniors. “To that, every future group will strive to achieve what they’ve achieved, and they set it high.”
The Wildcats are focused on playing in their fourth consecutive bowl game, and hope to end the program’s 62-year bowl drought. Led by a senior class which has rewritten Northwestern history, this team hopes for a special finish.
“We’ve got the chance for two special opportunities, and the first one is on Saturday,” said Fitzgerald. “I don’t think the last chapter is written yet, but we’ve got the pen in our hands, let’s see what we want to write.”