Nick VanHoose and the rest of his Northwestern University football teammates didn’t need a history lesson before they played in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. They were well aware the Wildcats hadn’t won a bowl game in 64 years, though one last speech by the school president before the last practice reminded them of what they were trying to accomplish.
“We all knew how long it had been,” VanHoose said.
In his first season on the field at Northwestern, the Graham High School graduate got to take part in one of the program’s greatest seasons. He started at cornerback and had one tackle and an interception in a 34-20 victory over Mississippi State.
It was Northwestern’s first bowl win since the Rose Bowl in 1949. Northwestern also reached 10 wins for just the second time in the modern era, finishing 10-3.
“It was incredible,” VanHoose said. “Just to be able to play in the bowl game was a great experience. Last year, we went to the Car Care Bowl, and I was redshirted, so I didn’t get to do anything. To be a part of this bowl game and be a part of the win, words can’t even explain how happy our whole team was.”
VanHoose finished the season tied for the team lead with three interceptions. He had 33 tackles and recovered three fumbles. He missed three games because of a shoulder injury, but he started the other 10. He was even named Big Ten Freshman of the Week after breaking up three passes against Minnesota.
VanHoose, Graham’s all-time leading rusher and the News-Sun’s All-Area Basketball Player of the Year in 2011, redshirted his freshman season, and that decision paid off this season.
“They were talking about playing me last year,” he said. “I didn’t want to at all. I didn’t think I was nearly ready for it.”
The Wildcats needed him this year. He was part of a defense that held their opponents to 20 or fewer points in eight games.
“Communication was a big thing and just people doing their job and doing it to the best of their abilities,” VanHoose said. “We have a pretty solid defense when we’re all on the same page and working together.”
VanHoose had one of four interceptions in the Gator Bowl, the most by the team in a bowl game since that Rose Bowl in 1949. The Wildcats led 27-20 in the third quarter when VanHoose picked off a pass and returned it 39 yards to set up the final touchdown.
“I was just doing my job,” he said. “I saw the ball thrown. I caught it like a punt. It was a pretty high throw.”
Now the question for Northwestern is, “What’s next?”
“We’re basically getting the same team back,” VanHoose said. “We lose some great seniors and great leadership, but I expect big things for the next couple of years.”