A comprehensive history of Northwest football bowl games

As the Cats plan to play their first bowl game since January 2021, it’s only right that we remind readers of the team’s postseason history. NU has played 16 bowl games and won six, including its last four. Let’s take a look back at every postseason matchup the Purple and White have been in leading up to Las Vegas.

1949 Rose Bowl

Result: 20-14 win over California

The Cats (7-2) entered their first bowl game appearance in program history as a 6.5-point favorite over the Golden Bears (10-0). Michigan finished first in the Big Nine, but NU benefited from the conference’s non-playoff rule, which was finally lifted in 1972.

NU’s Frank Aschenbrenner ran for 119 yards on the day, including a 73-yard touchdown that broke a Rose Bowl record. In the fourth quarter, the Cats snapped the ball directly to quarterback Ed Tunnicliffe, who darted past the Golden Bears into the end zone. PeeWee Day sealed the game for NU with an interception in the final minute, giving the purple and white their first bowl win. The Cats found a way, though they converted just seven first downs to Cal’s 12.

1996 Rose Bowl

Result: 41-32 loss to USC

NU returned to Pasadena nearly half a century later, facing Keyshaun Johnson and the Trojans. To open the 1995 season, the Cats defeated Notre Dame in South Bend – from there, “Expect to Win” became their defining motto. They went 10-2, including an eight-game Big Ten undefeated record, earning the No. 3 seed entering the New Year’s Day matchup.

The Cats couldn’t find the same success in sunny California. Trojans QB Brad Otten threw for 391 yards, 216 of which went to Johnson — the Jets would draft the 6-foot receiver first overall just three months later. NU had a 32-31 lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Trojans scored 10 unanswered points to earn the victory for the home crowd.

1997 Citrus Bowl

Result: 48-28 loss to Tennessee

NU featured a stellar defense in 1996, led by two-time national DPOY Pat Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, it was on the wrong side of the New Year’s story. Peyton Manning threw 408 passes and four touchdowns for the Cats, who battled a flu epidemic and received IVs in the sweltering Orlando heat.

The Vols took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, but Northwestern responded with three touchdowns of its own. In the second half, the ‘Cats couldn’t hang on as quarterback Steve Schnur threw three picks, including a crushing 30-yarder. Tennessee finished with 523 total yards to Northwestern’s 285.

2000 Alamo Bowl

Result: 66-17 loss to Nebraska

The Wildcats’ bowl woes continued into the next millennium. In the biggest upset in Alamo Bowl history, the Huskers scored 31 points in the second quarter and never looked back.

‘Cats tailback Damien Anderson, who finished fifth in the Heisman voting three weeks earlier, rushed for 149 yards and a touchdown. Despite his best efforts, the Cats just couldn’t stop Nebraska’s rushing attack. Fullback Dan Alexander had 240 yards and two scores, and quarterback Eric Crouch rushed and threw for two touchdowns.

2003 Motor City Bowl

Result: 28-24 loss to Bowling Green

It was all about the game on the field for the Detroit Cats. Running backs Jason Wright and Noah Herron combined for 317 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Wright’s touchdown run went 77 yards – the second-longest in Motor City Bowl history.

But NU just couldn’t stop Bowling Green’s passing attack. Josh Harris threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns; on the other end, NU signal-caller Brett Bassanez went just 7-for-15 for 58 yards without a touchdown pass. The ‘Cats’ one-dimensional offense wasn’t enough to keep up with the Falcons, who finished the season ranked No. 24.

2005 Sun Bowl

Result: 50-38 loss to UCLA

Basanez was much more active for NU against the Bruins, throwing for 416 yards and two touchdowns on 70 attempts. He and the ‘Cats came out firing, putting up 22 unanswered points to start the game. Their fortunes quickly changed as UCLA began to click on the ground and in the air; The Bruins went on a 29-point run in their own half.

The Bruins’ two-headed monster of Chris Markey and Khalil Bell combined for 299 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns. NU’s defense just couldn’t keep up, which wasn’t necessarily a surprise — it allowed an FBS-worst 480.4 yards per game in 2005.

2008 Alamo Bowl

Result: 30-23 (overtime) loss to Missouri

The Journalism Bowl pitted the No. 23 Cats against the No. 21 Tigers, with the latter entering the day as 12.5-point favorites. NU intercepted Chase Daniel on Mizzou’s kickoff and QB CJ Bacher found Eric Peterman in the end zone on a 35-yard strike. The two teams were tied 10-10 entering halftime and tied again at 23-23 after 60 minutes of play.

The Tigers won the coin toss in overtime — and it didn’t take long for Daniel to find Jeremy Maclin for a seven-yard touchdown. Northwestern had a chance to answer, but a devastating strip ended up leading to a turnover late in the game. The crushing overtime result marked NU’s sixth straight bowl loss.

2010 Outback Bowl

Result: 38-35 (overtime) loss to Auburn

Another penalty, another heartbreaking overtime loss. In his first season as the starter, senior quarterback Mike Kafka led the Cats to an 8-4 record. The captain set many bowl game records, attempting 78 passes for 532 yards. Oh, and he threw four touchdowns and five interceptions. Heyyy.

Starting kicker Stefan Demos was injured in overtime, forcing Pat Fitzgerald to send in the backup to kick the game-tying field goal. Instead, in true Randy Walker fashion, the Cats attempted a fumble — receiver Zeke Marxhausen dropped back for a handoff, but was stopped at the 2-yard line. Although the final score was not in NU’s favor, this bowl game was one of the most entertaining productions in college football history.

2011 TicketCity Bowl

Result: 45-38 loss to Texas Tech

NU entered Dallas without starting quarterback Dan Persa, who tore his Achilles in November. In his place, Fitzgerald started Evan Watkins and included Wildcat QB Kane Colter. The two signal-callers combined for just 114 yards, but Colter led the rushing attack with 105 yards and two touchdowns.

The Red Raiders had a 21-point lead in the third quarter when head coach Tommy Tuberville decided to try an onside kick. The Cats recovered and would get as close as seven in the final frame. But Taylor Potts was too much for NU’s defense as he earned MVP honors with 369 passing yards and five total touchdowns.

2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

Result: 33-22 loss to Texas A&M

It was Northwestern’s second bowl game of the 2011 calendar year, facing another Texas team in the Lone Star State. Dan Persa and the ‘Cats led 7-3 in the second quarter, but Texas A&M scored 27 unanswered points to secure a convincing win.

Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill won the game MVP after throwing for 329 yards and a touchdown. He got plenty of help from his defense, which sacked Persa and Cain Colter eight times. For those counting at home, it was Northwestern’s ninth straight bowl loss.

2013 Gator Bowl

Result: 34-20 win over Mississippi State

Finally! The No. 20 Cats led 13-0 in the second quarter after intercepting Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Russell three times. NU’s quarterback tandem of Trevor Siemian and Kane Colter threw three picks of their own, but the rushing attack picked them up. The ‘Cats ran for 161 yards, plus three touchdowns in the second half of the game.

NU’s bowl win snapped a nine-game losing streak that was tied with Notre Dame for the longest in NCAA history. The win was Pat Fitzgerald’s 50th as a head coach, passing Pappy Waldorf as the winningest coach in program history.

2016 Outback Bowl

Result: 45-6 loss to Tennessee

NU entered the New Year ranked No. 13 in the nation, while the Vols sat 10 spots lower. But the CFP rankings didn’t seem to matter as Tennessee’s game single-handedly demolished the ‘Cats. As a team, the Vols rushed for 226 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

The purple and whites played catch-up from the start. QBs Clayton Thorson and Zach Oliver combined for four interceptions without a touchdown pass. Justin Jackson was a bright spot for the Cats as he rushed 74 yards and found the end zone in the second quarter.

2016 Pinstripe Cup

Result: 31-24 win over Pittsburgh

Like his entire career as a Wildcat, Jackson was the star of the show in the Bronx. He paced the Panthers for 224 yards and three scores on 32 carries. Jackson led the ‘Cats to a 14-3 run in the second quarter, but Pitt responded with two touchdowns of its own. Yet JJTBC wasn’t done — he regained the lead for NU with a 40-yard house call in the next frame.

The Cats scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to secure their third bowl win in program history. It was no surprise when Jackson was named the game’s MVP.

2017 Music City Bowl

Result: 24-23 win over Kentucky

NU lost Thorson early to a leg injury, but Jackson stepped up as always. He again earned MVP honors for his 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore RB Jeremy Larkin was no slouch either, rushing for 112 yards on just nine carries.

The ‘Cats held up defensively when it mattered most. They limited Kentucky to just 65 rushing yards on 22 carries despite allowing 107.8 rushing yards per game in 2017 (eighth most in FBS).

2018 Holiday Cup

Result: 31-20 win over Utah

The cats had a job in San Diego. Utah had an elite defense that allowed just 19.4 points per game, which was 19th in the FBS. Even worse, the Utes were fourth in the FBS, allowing 101.4 rushing yards per game.

In a shocking turn of events, NU’s defense dominated the game. In the third quarter alone, the Cats scored 21 points after three Utah turnovers. Safety Jared McGee returned an 82-yard touchdown as part of a stellar performance by the Purple and White. Utah was a seven-point favorite, but the ‘Cats overcame the odds by becoming agents of chaos.

Citrus Bowl 2021

Result: 35-19 win over Auburn

The No. 14 Wildcats were favorites coming into Orlando, led by a lockdown defense that surrendered the fifth fewest points per game in the FBS (15.9). NU jumped out to an early 14-0 lead behind two TD passes by Peyton Ramsey. However, two field goals and a 57-yard touchdown run by Bo Nix brought Auburn within one in the third quarter. But the Cats hit back with three straight scores to take a 35-13 lead.

Auburn was able to find the end zone once again, but it wasn’t enough to go on. Ramsey was named MVP after throwing for 291 yards and three touchdowns. This was Pat Fitzgerald’s last win before his retirement in July 2023.

2023 Las Vegas Bowl

Result: TBD

NU will face Utah on Dec. 23 and try to win its first bowl under head coach David Brown. The Utes have lost 12 players to trades and more to the NFL Draft since the regular season finale, including star receiver Devaughn Vele and defensive end JaTravis Broughton.

The Wildcats are riding a three-game winning streak, including an electrifying 45-43 win at Illinois on Nov. 25. Utah is currently favored by 6.5 points, but don’t discount the Cardiac Cats as they look to put together an impressive win season.

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