The word 'close' will be used to define Northwestern's season.
NU was close to knocking off Penn State at Beaver Stadium. It was close to the game-securing interception to beat Legends Divison frontrunner Nebraska. Cornerback Daniel Jones was close to breaking up the 53-yard pass which led Michigan to a win.
In past seasons, it was OK for Northwestern to be close. Now, it's a reminder that this year's Wildcats fell short of their goal.
"Being a championship team," head coach Pat Fitzgerald pointed as the program's goal. "That's what we're close to. We're going to win football games. I'm not worried about that. But we're close to being a championship team and that's our expectation."
It's not enough to just be bowl-eligible, now. That was Fitzgerald's message following the postseason-clinching victory over Minnesota.
NU's latest late-game letdown, an overtime loss to Michigan, proved to be the dagger in those that dream. When the Wildcats returned to their team meeting room on Monday, the goal listing 'Win the Legends Division' was covered in tape. The Wildcats carry that wish into the future.
"It's not going to happen in the Big Ten for us this year," Fitzgerald conceded. "When I say that, I mean we're close. Do you get tired of saying it? Yeah, you do. But it's a journey, it's a grind. I think we're building it."
Despite the disappointment of falling short this season, Fitzgerald continues to strive for championships at his alma mater.
"That's what our expectations are," he said. "That's what we aspire to be. Gone are the days of 'maybe we'll win.' Gone are the days of 'maybe we'll play in the postseason.' Our expectations are to be champions."
The season carries on for Northwestern, with the new goal of winning the program's first bowl game since 1949. Still, that's not what the Wildcats were fighting for.
Northwestern now has championship expectations, and will continue to work toward that. Fitzgerald, his staff and players have bought in to lofty expectations. Close isn't good enough anymore.
"Your program trudges on," Fitzgerald said. "Our men trudge on and keep grinding. To ye [who] have little faith, find somewhere else to have little faith."