In a season riddled with adversity, Northwestern football’s perseverance has earned them a hardworking reputation. Whether it was securing a Big Ten title in the West or holding Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to 114 yards in the Big Ten Championship game, the Wildcats never seemed to back down to any obstacle thrown their way.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald credited the team’s hard working “blue collar mentality” to their success, claiming no other group exemplifies those values more than the team’s senior class.
“They've led us to this point,” Coach Fitz said. “They've done a terrific job, and we wouldn't be here without those seniors. I’m just really thankful for them.”
There’s no doubt that Northwestern’s upperclassmen have seen a lot during their time with the program: two appearances at the Big Ten Championships (2018, 2020) and three bowl game victories (2016, 2017, 2018), but also a 1-8 conference record (2019) and the struggles of a pandemic. Through it all, this senior class has persevered through some of the program’s toughest struggles and led the team to some of their highest peaks.
“I'm just super proud of this group of men, who we've become and how much we've grown,” senior linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “These are relationships and bonds that I'll never forget.”
Fisher is one of the program’s biggest stars, leading the team’s defense in all five of his years with the program. He received the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award this season and currently leads the country with 383 career tackles, more than any active FBS player. He was also named first-team All Big Ten in 2018 and 2020.
Fisher was joined by other senior leaders to raise the team’s level of success. Fellow linebacker Blake Gallagher, who currently leads the team in tackles with 74, linebacker Chris Bergin, and defensive end Earnest Brown IV have all contributed to making Northwestern's defense the fifth-best in the country.
“This is unreal, just to come in here and have the bar be set to winning the West and competing for a Big Ten Title. That wasn't the standard when we got here,” Fisher said. “I think it's just been unreal to have the standard set that high with a great group of men like this.”
Senior leaders on the other side of the ball have pushed Northwestern to new heights as well. Graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey saved Northwestern from quarterback troubles that derailed the team’s entire 2019 season. With nine touchdown passes and 1,442 yards, Ramsey does not carry the star power that other Big Ten quarterbacks boast. Yet his leadership style and his relationships with teammates have brought consistency on offense that the program has lacked.
“He's been awesome all year. You know, he was the glue that we needed,” Coach Fitz said. “I think as a program we needed to settle our quarterback position into a winner, and that's what he proved.”
Other members of the senior class have meshed with Ramsey on offense. Senior wide receivers Kyric McGowan and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman led the team on and off the field. McGowan, who just entered the portal to be a grad transfer, notched 34 catches this season and leads the team with 667 all-purpose yards. Chiaokhiao-Bowman had a break-out fifth-year season, with a career-best of 38 receptions and 447 yards, earning him his first All-Big Ten honors.
“Perseverance, grit and talent,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said of members of his class. “A lot of times we might get the compliment of being able to persevere and having grit, but we’re talented too.”
Fisher, Ramsey and Chiaokhiao-Bowman are leaders in a class who know the potential their team has for greatness. Playing through some of Northwestern’s best and worst seasons gave them the experience they needed to set the bar higher. With an insatiable appetite for more, the seniors refused to settle for low goals this season.
“It's one of those, 'Good, now let's go be great' type of mentality and feelings,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said, discussing the team’s title in the Big Ten West. “Now I'm honored and humbled to be able to be a part of the wave that sends us to the next goal, which is a Big Ten Championship.”
This camaraderie, formed over the lofty goal-setting mentioned by Chiaokhiao-Bowman, has an impact on the players: Fisher talked about his relationship with Chiakohiao-Bowman and the rest of his class.
“Super proud of him and who he is,” Fisher said. “There's none like this guy over here. Just truly grateful and thankful to do this ride and be part of this journey with him.”
Although many players are still available to return via fifth-year options, (with Fitzgerald even mentioning that Twitter users should ask Peyton Ramsey to stay one more year) the upcoming Citrus Bowl will likely be a last hurrah of sorts for this team, as they graduate from Northwestern and move on to new horizons. But with the groundwork this team has laid and with new prospects coming to the school every year, the impact this class has had will never be forgotten.