SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Just when you thought…
Those four words, and the ensuing ellipsis, are the only way to construct any thought about Northwestern football at the moment. And just when you thought that might not be the case anymore, that phrase, along with thrilling and emotionally-gripping football, reappeared once more. In fact, after Saturday, it is more prevalent than ever.
Just when you thought the Wildcats were dead, they rose. Just when you thought NU was doomed for another season with a premature ending, the Wildcats kept hopes alive. Just when you thought all was lost, they gave you reason to believe – to dream.
Just when you thought momentum was building back in August, it was nipped in the bud. Then, just when you thought this team was destined for mediocrity, its play on the field conveyed that it begged to differ. Wins over Penn State and Wisconsin conjured up thoughts of Indianapolis. But just when you thought those thoughts had validity, a winless month proved them otherwise. That was the story of Northwestern’s season.
Those four words and the ensuing ellipsis also apply to Saturday. What a ride. What a wild, nonsensical, obscene, breathtaking and awesome ride.
When Jack Mitchell split the uprights for a third time from over 40 yards with the weight of 80,000 riding on his right leg, and when the navy blue ‘ND’ at midfield subsequently became overwhelmed by white and purple, a football season that was for all intents and purposes over survived. And for the impressive travelling fans whose 4th-quarter "defense" chants reverberated around Notre Dame Stadium, and for Northwestern’s resilient players, faith was rewarded.
It didn’t begin well for the Wildcats, with Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson waltzing through NU’s defense for a 61-yard touchdown run. But just when you thought that 18-point betting line was idiotically low, Northwestern’s offense answered.
Just when you thought the Wildcats could be up to something though, Garret Dickerson coughed up the ball, and pretty soon, NU would trail by double digits.
However, Northwestern’s offense would respond. Just when you thought offensive coordinator Mick McCall was insane for handing Treyvon Green the ball on 3rd-and-9, the senior rumbled for 45 yards, setting up Trevor Siemian to Kyle Prater for six.
Minutes later, Anthony Walker picked off Golson, Justin Jackson plunged into the end zone, and the visitors led for the first time. Even after the Fighting Irish retook the lead, confidence was high.
But just when you thought this was a different Northwestern team than the one of the last few months, Siemian rolled to his left on third and goal. His off-balance pass was ill-advised, and fans cringed as Northwestern went to the locker room trailing.
But of course, just when you thought Notre Dame was about to pull away, Golson… well, he was Everett Golson. On 1st-and-goal, a handoff mishap gave Northwestern life. And later, just when you thought Northwestern’s offense, now facing an 8-point deficit, had stalled, they sustained a drive and Jack Mitchell converted from 46. And just when you thought an 11-point deficit was insurmountable for a misfiring Siemian, he engineered a mechanical touchdown drive to bring the Wildcats within three.
Back and forth, back and forth. But just when you thought the plot twists had dried up, you realized that the best was yet to come. There was the pass interference call on Jimmy Hall that seemed to seal Northwestern’s fate. There was the Cam McDaniel fumble that gave NU life. There was Cameron Dickerson’s fumble on the do-or-die drive that squirmed out of bounds. There was Jack Mitchell’s first clutch boot.
Then, there was this.
Saturday’s game was what college football is all about. Northwestern’s season has been a rough one. It’s been full of criticism, disappointment and frustration. But Saturday in South Bend, memories were made. Seniors Ibraheim Campbell, Prater and Siemian all said this was the game, more than any other, that they wouldn’t soon forget, perhaps ever.
Many aspects of Saturday’s game were paradoxical. Explosive plays came regularly for Northwestern, but so did self-inflicted wounds and individual mistakes. The offense was at times better than it had been all season, but it was also typical Northwestern offense – drops, fumbles, interceptions, opponent defensive touchdowns.
Throughout the frigid afternoon, just when you thought the game couldn't get any wackier, on many occasions, it did.
Maybe that’s fitting though, because Northwestern football has become synonymous with the unexpected. And Saturday, for once, "unexpected" was a positive word rather than a negative one.