After two competitive – if not excellent – matchups in the past three years, the decision was somewhat surprising.
Call it what you will, but the method of delivery seemed all too fitting. There was no one game during which NU announced its arrival to relevance.
It required a slow climb, and heading into a nationally televised matchup against Nebraska, the Wildcats are that much closer to breaking through.
Pat Fitzgerald hit the nail on the head in another memorable interview, saying to WSCR Radio in Chicago: "I think it just shows where our program is heading in comparison to theirs."
This season, I have felt obliged to criticize NU on several occasions. The play calling is often numbingly conservative. The defense struggles to put together complete games. And even with a 6-1 record, the Cats still have a great deal to prove.
Yet the big picture is very much in tact.
NU boasts Pat Fitzgerald, synonymous for "coaching stability." The Cats have somehow built a reputation for exceptional quarterback play – thanks to Brett Basanez, C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa and Kain Colter. Any wonder why elite local prospect Matt Alviti chose NU?
In the end, seasons boil down to wins and losses. Three years from now, last week's Minnesota game will not be remembered as an unimpressive, dull contest. Instead: win, 21-13, team moves to 6-1. I'm sure every diehard Cats fan remembers the years when six wins translated to shock and delight.
It would take a jaded Illinois fan to deny Fitzgerald's claim that this program is headed in the right direction. Vanderbilt just provided some reassurance.
In recent years, several programs rose due to simple innovation. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State leaned on unstoppable air raids en route to excellent seasons. Although NU helped to pioneer spread offense techniques – particularly in the 54-51 win against Michigan in 2002 – this is a rare team that knows how to win any way it can.
Back in week two, several media members (including me) expected Vanderbilt to recover from a loss to South Carolina by trouncing the Cats. After NU allowed 471 passing yards to Syracuse, Jordan Rodgers was supposed to torch a beleaguered secondary. NU would need 50 points to stay close, right?
The Cats keep redefining themselves on the spot. Against the Commodores, they miraculously stopped elite tailback Zac Stacy and held their opponents to a paltry 13 points.
One team was going to win that evenly matched game, and the Cats always seemed in control. Credit the coaching staff, the players and a program playing with willpower and confidence.
Each year, analysts ridicule teams that struggle down the stretch. We value clutch teams, yet when teams embrace that status, we often label their performances as mere flukes. Seven games into the 2012 season, the Cats are no joke. They can give the definitive proof with a win over Nebraska.
Ultimately, teams that want to beat NU need to execute. They need iron wills. They need to believe they can defend their home turf, or invade Ryan Field, and beat a team that figured out how to win. If you don't think you can do that, then why bother showing up?
Good riddance, Vandy. Thanks for the vote of confidence.