Anthony Tyus III celebrates a Wildcats score with teammates. The Wildcats can keep celebrating a great bounce back season that has them sitting above 0.500 and prepping for a Bowl trip. Photo by Maren Kranking/North by Northwestern.

The Northwestern Wildcats football team is going bowling for the first time since the 2020 season!

After a 1-11 record in 2022, a brutal offseason that saw the firing of longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald due to a hazing scandal and the delegation of brand new defensive coordinator David Braun as the interim, the Wildcats (7-5, 5-4 B1G) were staring down a tough season.

Now, we’re looking at a team guaranteed a bowl game led by the probable Big Ten Coach of the Year.

“I think it’s an absolute reflection of just this team’s maturity… taking it very seriously that we just need to find a way to improve each and every day,” said newly appointed Dan and Susan Jones Family Head Football Coach David Braun of his team’s ability to overcome adversity and extend their season.

How they did it

The win against Purdue (4-8, 3-6 B1G) on Saturday sealed the deal as the Wildcats earned their sixth win of the season. Led by fourth-year running back Cam Porter’s two rushing touchdowns and a solid defensive showing, Northwestern pulled out a 23-15 victory over the Boilermakers.

Fittingly, it was a day where the graduating seniors stood out in the final home game of the season, and potentially the final game at Ryan Field ever. Sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant connected with another Cam, fellow sixth-year wide receiver Cam Johnson, for a 52-yard touchdown in response to a Purdue touchdown that cut into Northwestern’s lead. Porter would put the game away in the fourth quarter with a 34-yard touchdown scamper.

In true Big Ten fashion, the game was mostly a defensive battle. The ’Cats forced three fourth-down stops and four turnovers, including the game-sealing interception by fourth-year linebacker Xander Mueller with 21 seconds left. However, they also allowed over 300 rushing yards.

Last week, the 'Cats took home the Land of Lincoln Trophy (aka the Hat) at Illinois (5-7, 3-6 B1G). The win qualifies Northwestern for a bowl bid.

So… bowl trip?

This journey has been wild for the Wildcats, but culminating in a trip to a bowl game makes it all the more sweet. But where could the Wildcats go in December or January? I’m glad you asked.

In what we’ll call tier zero are the non-aligned bowl games, where the B1G is not the conference scheduled to send a team to one of these bowls. If there are not enough other teams eligible, Northwestern could find themselves in this tier playing before Christmas in a less-than-exciting city, but this outcome is not very likely.

In tier one of B1G bowl games, we have the current most likely scenario with the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 in Detroit, MI. This is followed by the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, which is also on Dec. 26 in Phoenix, AZ. Both of these bowls are achievable with six wins and are B1G aligned. Most notably, both Northwestern and Wisconsin  are 7-5, so the Wildcats could make the trip to Arizona (or a Tier 2 bowl, but more on that in a minute) because the Badgers went to Phoenix last year, making them ineligible to go in back-to-back years.

The Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28 in New York City and the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 23 in Las Vegas, NV, sit in tier two. These bowls are more likely at 7-5 but because of the sheer number of potential 6-6 B1G teams, both could see 0.500 teams as representatives. However, New York is less likely because either Rutgers or Maryland is more likely to get the nod due to being on the East Coast already.

Finally, tier three consists of the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 in Nashville, TN, and the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 1 in Tampa, FL. Tampa is not likely because if a B1G team goes to the Orange Bowl, which is currently projected, then the conference forfeits its ReliaQuest Bowl spot. Nashville, on the other hand, is more likely than you think. With the ’Cats at 7-5, and Rutgers finishes 6-6, Northwestern will be the best team in the B1G outside of the division winners, the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game and Penn State. This theoretically sends them to the highest remaining bowl, the Music City Bowl.

The bottom line

Closing out Senior Day and Ryan Field with a win is a monumental step forward for a program that has overcome so much adversity this season.

“We accomplished something special today, but the task is not done. We still have a lot of work in front of us.” Braun said after the win.

There is something special brewing in Evanston, so when you go to pack your bags this holiday season, don’t forget your bowling shoes.

Thumbnail photo by Brandi Simpson/North by Northwestern.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article said the Northwestern and Illinois game would occur next week but the game had already happened when the article was published. NBN regrets the error.