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But the Wildcats didn’t flinch. They responded with Siemian directing a 76-yard drive that put NU up for good. Tyris Jones bowled in from 3 yards out.

Siemian added a 4-yard TD run — set up by Colter’s 31-yard scamper — that made it 27-13 with 26 seconds remaining in the third. That came after Russell’s fourth pick, the one VanHoose grabbed near midfield.

“I feel like a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders,” Colter said.

Venric Mark, Northwestern’s all-everything back, finished with 56 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.

Mark and Colter were on the field for the final few snaps, watching from afar as the madness started to unfold on their sideline. The Wildcats spent the final 1:42 celebrating the program’s first postseason victory since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.

Defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, one of the team’s 25 seniors, doused Fitzgerald with a water bucket and then jumped into his arms. When the game ended, players danced at midfield and then ran toward the stands to recognize friends, family and fans. Fitzgerald playfully directed the band as it belted out the alma mater.

“This one goes to all the Wildcats that have been here before us,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve paved the way for us. … The sky is the limit for where our program can go. … We might not be putting the Big Ten championship trophy in our case, but we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today.”

The Wildcats donned Gator Bowl championship hats and posed for pictures long after the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“It’s just a great feeling,” linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “It’s unreal. It’s like we keep saying, we haven’t been here before. I’m kind of sad there is no confetti afterwards, but I’ll deal with it. It was just good to be out there on the field as long as we wanted to.”

A few minutes later, they got to rip the monkey to pieces.

“Every time I think about this, I start to tear up a little bit,” said Williams, who also tipped another pass that was intercepted. “This is just a fantastic happening for our school. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point and it paid off. I’ve been here for five years and to finally get a win is just amazing.”