Northwestern's overtime win over Notre Dame was a rush of euphoria I don't really remember. Every Northwestern fan in the world had an enormous smile on their face, and we were letting everybody know it. On Twitter, I kept seeing Northwestern fans saying this was one of the best Northwestern wins they've ever seen.
Which seems weird. Northwestern has had more important wins: At 4-6, Northwestern still needs wins in its final two games to go bowling, and even such would go to a very uninteresting bowl game.
It's had wins against better teams: The Wildcats beat a team ranked higher than Notre Dame earlier this season -- Wisconsin was No. 17 -- and have beaten better, higher-ranked teams in the past -- an undefeated No. 4 Iowa in 2009, a top-10 Nebraska squad in 2011, and several others.
But it's undeniable that last night's win felt absolutely incredible. There are about a million reasons why, and I think I can break them down.
1. Northwestern had no business coming back to win
For starters, Northwestern was only able to tie the game in regulation because of a blatant, obvious coaching error by Brian Kelly. Up 11, he went for two, and Northwestern stopped the Irish. This kept the lead at 11 points, which NU matched with a TD, two-point conversion, and field goal. NU would have needed two touchdowns to win if Kelly had not done this, and NU would not have gotten two touchdowns. Kelly first called the decision "a coin flip," later said there was "no advantage" to going for two, and attributed his decision to problems in the kicking game. That problem in the kicking game was Kyle Brindza, who entered the game having made 105 of 106 extra points in his career, and at the time of his decision, was 109-for-111. Truly baffling call by Kelly, and it came back to bite him.
Then there's the fact that NU was only able to get the ball back for the game-tying drive because of a fumble with under two minutes to go by Cam McDaniel. McDaniel had only one career fumble in 253 carries.They gave the ball to their safest running back, and he coughed it up.
You could argue this was also a terrible coaching decision by Kelly. If he'd had his team simply kneel three times, they would've had to snap on fourth down with about ten seconds left. That would've left a punt to NU where the Wildcats would've gotten the ball with about five seconds left. He could've probably figured out a way to avoid the punt and the dangers of a block/return/bad snap that come with it -- having the QB jog a few yards backwards before kneeling each play, having Golson scramble a bit and throw a bomb out of bounds on fourth down. But I won't pin this on Kelly -- asking somebody as typically surehanded as McDaniel to run forward three times seemed like a pretty safe bet. And yet it didn't pay off.
And when you look at other missed opportunities by the Irish -- a fumble by Chris Brown as he reached towards the goal line, which looked like a TD live before replay showed it was a fumble, an unforced fumble by Everett Golson within Northwestern's 10-yard line -- the fact that Northwestern won this game seems like a damn miracle.
2. So many things Northwestern has been bad at, they were suddenly good at
Northwestern's offense has been awful all year. Even with the Notre Dame game, they're 124th out of 128 teams in yards-per-play, ahead of just Eastern Michigan, UTSA, SMU, and Wake Forest. Trevor Siemian got sacked a lot, and when he didn't, he threw mainly checkdowns and overthrew guys downfield. Last week, this team got nine points against Michigan. Nine. AP Style does not require that I use numerals for the amount of points Northwestern scored against a team that has become a nationwide laughingstock.
And then Northwestern played Notre Dame.
Northwestern's three longest plays of the year came against Notre Dame, a 44-yard run by Justin Jackson, a 45-yard run by Treyvon Green, and a 60-yard pass to Cameron Dickerson. I repeat: these were Northwestern's three biggest plays of the year. They had no plays of over 40 yards before this. And those three biggest plays came in the same game, against one of the better teams Northwestern played.
Northwestern scored 43 damn points. The previous high for the year was 29, and that came in a game featuring a defensive touchdown. NU had only hit 20 points four times in eight games, one of those was against an FCS team, and one was against Cal, who allows over 39 points per game.
Saturday was the best game of Siemian's year and one of the best of his career. His 284 yards was a season high, and it would have been better if his receiving corps hadn't dropped a bunch of really nice passes.
And then there's the kicker. Freshman kicker Jack Mitchell, the newest saint in the Northwestern football canon.
Mitchell had not been particularly effective for the Wildcats. He came into the game 0-for-2 from over 30 yards, his career long was 29 yards. He shanked two extra points against Penn State. They weren't blocked or misheld or anything, he just missed them. Although Pat Fitzgerald is far from a risk-taker as a coach, he'd taken to going for it on fourth down within the 35-yard line, even on 4th-and-7 and such, simply because he didn't think his kicker was going to make a kick from over 40 yards.
He hit the four longest field goals of his career Saturday, including three 40-plus yarders. He hit a 45-yarder to force overtime, and a 41-yarder to win it in OT. In a game filled with unbelievable things, Mitchell's sudden ability to drill deep field goals is perhaps the least believable.
3. The whole "enormous upset" thing
Northwestern was 17-point underdogs. 17. Northwestern had been an underdog by a touchdown or more in games against Penn State and Wisconsin and won, but... 17! This was a 3-6 team beating a 7-2 team. That doesn't happen a lot.
4. Because close wins like this haven't happened to Northwestern in so long
When Northwestern tried rallying back against Notre Dame, I had zero percent confidence they would win. When they pushed it to overtime, that stayed the same.
After the game, I started thinking about when Northwestern's last overtime win was. For some reason, I couldn't come up with it off the top of my head. I could think of all sorts of games Northwestern had played, but couldn't come up with an overtime win. So I had to look it up.
You know why? You know when Northwestern's last overtime win was? Oct. 13, 2007, against Minnesota. At that time, I was a high school senior. I had never watched a Northwestern football game before. In the entirety of my Northwestern fandom, I had never seen Northwestern win an overtime game.
In the time in between Northwestern's last overtime win and Saturday, I applied to Northwestern, was accepted, went to Northwestern, watched my first Northwestern football game, started a Northwestern sports blog, ran it until I graduated, continued running it for a year and a half, and handed off the Northwestern sports blog to the people who run this blog. In the time between Northwestern's last overtime win and Saturday, I went from someone excited about the prospect of going to Northwestern to someone nostalgic for the time years ago when he went there.
It wasn't for lack of effort. Since the 2007 win over Minnesota, Northwestern:
- Lost 30-23 in overtime to Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl
- Lost 38-35 in overtime to Auburn in the 2010 Outback Bowl, having a) missed a potential game-winning field goal in regulation b) having a potential game-tying TD in overtime doink off the uprights on a play where the kicker suffered an injury, forcing NU to run an ill-fated fumblerooskie on the next play
- Lost 38-31 in overtime to Michigan in 2012 after a Hail Mary deflected by a Northwestern player ended up getting caught by Roy Roundtree to set up a game-tying field goal in regulation
- Lost 17-10 in overtime to Iowa in 2013
- Lost 27-19 in triple overtime to Michigan in 2013 after Michigan hit a last-second fire drill field goal wherein the Wolverines' holder slid into position to get the snap off instants before the clock expired
And that's just the overtime losses. That's not including last week's missed two-point conversion to avoid overtime against Michigan, or a Hail Mary loss to Nebraska in 2013. In the past 400 days or so, Northwestern has had as many games that can be counted as "close/heartbreaking losses" as games that Northwestern has won.
This parade of crap readied us for a sad ending. When it didn't happen, we felt something we hadn't felt in a very, very long time.
5. Because Notre Dame
I wrote about last week about how much I wanted Northwestern to beat Notre Dame. A lot of it was jokes, but a lot of it is still worth thinking about.
Northwestern plays football in an area that primarily contains Notre Dame fans. It would at least be nice to play Notre Dame every year so Northwestern could occasionally show it is as good/better than Notre Dame, but Northwestern does not get this opportunity often. Northwestern used to get this opportunity every year, and lost. Then Northwestern won in 1995, and the Wildcats couldn't score a date with the Irish for 20 damn years.
The good news is that gave Northwestern 20 damn years of bragging rights. But I assumed that Northwestern would get their butt whipped Saturday, and that those bragging rights would go away.
Waylp. Guess what. Northwestern now has a two-game, 20-plus year winning streak on the Irish. and it won't be broken until at least 2018, when the Irish are currently scheduled to make the return trip to Evanston.
Who knows if Notre Dame will ever play the Wildcats in 2018. I wouldn't be surprised if they cancel it tomorrow, or next month, or anytime from now up until 2017. The Irish now have to play an annual slate of ACC games in addition to all their traditional rivalries, and will probably want every game besides the ones they're locked into to be a guaranteed win. Right now they're signed up for nine games in 2018, eight against power conference teams. It'd make sense for them to drop a road game at a Big Ten team in favor of something easier.
You get to keep conference wins over opponents for a year. Northwestern gets to keep this win over Notre Dame, one of college football's most prestigious and most popular teams, for at least four years, if not an eternity.
And yeah. That feels good.