by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Coach Pat Fitzgerald elicited stifled giggles the other week when in trying to make a point about his optimistic nature, he held up a nearly empty water bottle and claimed that as far as he was concerned it was 98 percent full. It was a moment that brought back shades of George W. Bush, who famously mistook which hand was which during one speech. Clearly, that water bottle wasn't 98 percent full. It was 98 percent empty, and what Fitzgerald meant to say was that he saw it as being two percent full. But his point stood.
Fitzgerald is right. Northwestern's loss to Penn State was concerning. It was devastating. But it certainly didn't mark an end to the Wildcats' ambitious dreams. All it did was raise questions. Questions about whether Northwestern's vaunted offense can really succeed against the top defenses in the country. Questions about whether the Wildcats' wide receiving corps, once considered a core strength, is good enough. Questions about whether the defense, thought to be a vastly improved unit overall, can get off of the field in key situations. That being said, there is plenty of time remaining to answer all of these questions and plenty of wins left to be had. And all of the good that occured in five wins shouldn't be forgotten in the wake of a single loss.
Fitzgerald's quip about his suddenly full water bottle came in the wake, somewhat surprisingly, of a win, a win that left a bad taste in the mouth, as Northwestern struggled to hold off Indiana in the second half. That optimism was meant to guide his program following a shaky second half against Indiana, and that optimism was once again on full display following Northwestern's frustrating defeat at Happy Valley.
"If I were to tell you in late August that we would be in control of our destiny for the Big Ten Championship, would you be happy?" Fitzgerald said. "That's what I said to my team. So that's where we sit right now."
Fitzgerald's optimism was vital last season, when his chipper attitude helped guide his team through a five-game losing streak. Like a phoenix rising out of its own crumpled feathers, that Wildcats team was able to surge back with four straight wins, including an eye-catching win at Nebraska. Perhaps his optimism will pay off again this season.
Assuming Northwestern defeats Minnesota on Saturday, the Wildcats' faithful, who haven't always been so faithful in the past, need to provide their full support as Northwestern plays two critical games at Ryan Field toward the end of October. First, Nebraska comes to town, along with its heavy contingent of fans, and a little purple could go a long way in defeating Big Red. There's no doubt that the Cornhuskers will be hungry following last year's embarrassing defeat in Lincoln, but that doesn't mean they are impervious. They gave up 63 points to Ohio State, making Braxton Miller look like Geno Smith for one brief, shining moment. This Nebraska defense gave up 36 to UCLA as well and is ranked a modest 75th in the country with 27.7 points surrendered per game.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. There's plenty of reason to think that Kain Colter and the rest of that speedy Northwestern offense will be back in form by the time Nebraska comes to town. In fact, against the Buckeyes, the Cornhuskers surrendered 371 rushing yards, including 186 to Miller. Given how Northwestern likes to rely on its rushing game, and particularly its scrambling, moves-a-plenty quarterback, the Cornhuskers' defense could be just what the doctor ordered. And after all of the trouble Northwestern went through with Matt McGloin, a sloppy passer like Taylor Martinez, who tossed three picks against Ohio State, should prove a welcome respite for that Wildcats' secondary. Although the Wildcats have had their issues with scrambling quarterbacks in the past.
And then there's Iowa, and this isn't the same Iowa team as in years past. This is a Hawkeyes team that has had a hard time against nearly every team it's played, including Central Michigan and Iowa State, which they lost to in the non-conference season. In past seasons, this would have seemed like a matchup nightmare, given that Mark Weisman has torched Iowa's last three opponents for 100-plus yards. Those who thought his glories would end in the non-conference season apparently were wrong. Weisman is a big, hulking running back, but then again, this is a different rush defense than in years past, one that has given fans reason to believe. And this is an Iowa defense that has given opposing offenses reason to believe, particularly against Central Michigan, when the Hawkeyes allowed Ryan Radcliff to pass with near-perfect precision and Zurlon Tipton to average 4.5 yards per carry.
To think Northwestern was going to march through the season undefeated was a little misguided. To think that a resurgent Penn State, a red-hot Penn State wouldn't be a challenge, in a place where the Wildcats have won only once before, was misguided. To think that loss was the death knell to Northwestern's dreams is preposterous. There is plenty left to play for, and plenty of chances for Northwestern to make this season a season to remember.
Conceivably, the Wildcats could be 8-1 entering the Big House. They certainly should be 7-2. As a result, there's plenty to be excited about in Evanston. If Northwestern beats Minnesota, one can safely say that the Legends Division title is going to come through Ryan Field. Northwestern fans will have a chance to help their team make or break its season during an incredibly crucial two-game homestand. If only Northwestern's fans were willing to look past a broken metaphor and realize that the glass is still plenty full.
But the journey starts away from home at TCF Bank Stadium against a Minnesota team that was exposed by Iowa two weeks ago. It starts against a Minnesota team that is entirely beatable, a Minnesota team that surrendered 8.4 yards per carry to Mark Weisman, a Minnesota team that tossed three picks against the Hawkeyes, but a Minnesota team that will be extremely hungry. A win would be notable, and ought to be rewarded by a Ryan Field student section that is 98 percent full — just like Fitzgerald's water bottle.