You will always have Northwestern 43, Notre Dame 40.
How the Wildcats' upset last Saturday will be remembered five, 10 years from now is hard to say. But in the moment, it looks like one of the wackier results of this college football season. One can point to the Irish's youth and string of poor defense as reasons why Northwestern may have been able to hang around in this game, but the truth is NU had no business winning. Getting a W in South Bend would have been a tall order even if Northwestern were, say, 8-2, in contention for a Division title and playing great football.
The Wildcats were coming off a one-point suckfest of a loss to Michigan, which was preceded by a 41-point curb-stomping in Iowa City that was more lopsided than the score indicated. Amid that backdrop, no levelheaded Northwestern (ok almost no one) observer thought this team had a real shot on Saturday. Rodger Sherman did an excellent job explaining the improbability of the win and why it felt "absolutely incredible." Watching the players celebrate afterward, it seems safe to assume they agree with him.
All of which serves as one huge BUT leading back to the title of this article. Northwestern's win over Notre Dame needs to be placed into context. It was an isolated event that will likely have no bearing on how Northwestern plays the rest of the season and is probably best explained by the fact that weird things happen in college football. Jack Mitchell conjuring up whatever sliver of Adam Vinatieri's clutchness exists within him to nail the game-winner in overtime was enough "what the f*** just happened?" for Northwestern fans to digest in one afternoon.
That won't happen again - nor should the takeaway from Saturday be that this version of Northwestern is capable of standing toe-to-toe with top-25 teams like Notre Dame. NU has to beat two of the worst Power 5 teams (Purdue and Illinois) in the country to become bowl eligible (yes, there' a scenario where it could sneak into the postseason at 5-7), and I'm not sure if it can pull it off. Whatever happens the rest of the season, though, I think it's important the Notre Dame win be kept in perspective, particularly in light of all the issues Northwestern has dealt with.
Let's not lend undue significance to the type of win that Northwestern, as currently constructed, can't be expected to pull off again anytime soon. The Wildcats rank 87th in Football Outsiders latest offensive S&P + ratings and 51st on the other side of the ball. They haven't gotten anything resembling consistency at quarterback, the offense lacks big-play ability and is prone to costly breakdowns, the line is a hot mess and other teams know what plays they're going to call. Also, the defense has its own set of issues. Contrary to what we saw last Saturday, there's enough evidence now that we can acknowledge this is a mediocre-to-bad team.
So when it comes time to evaluate Northwestern's season, let's not lose sight of Northwestern's baseline. In that same vein, this should not be confused as a "successful" campaign for Northwestern on the merits of the funky ND win. We can debate the meaning of "success" for this program, but I tend to think it can strive for more than scrapping and clawing for entry into lower-tier bowl games. I realize there are some who point to the Wildcats' ugly past as evidence that a certain ceiling exists at Northwestern, that this program's history as a Big Ten doormat/laughingstock needs to be taken into consideration.
But if you look at the talent (relatively speaking) Fitz has stocked the depth chart with, as well as the instances in which the Wildcats won at least seven games during his tenure, it's easy to see why some may not be satisfied by 5-7/6-6 finishes. Chalk it up to poor luck, an inability to develop players or something else, but it's very easy to make the case that this team left something on the table considering it played a manageable non-con sked and nine teams from the worst power league in the country. Mind you, the guy who gave Northwestern a first-place vote in the preseason media poll isn't a part of this discussion.
Anyway, whether or not Northwestern decides to shake things up on its coaching staff this offseason, it's important that the Notre Dame win not be built into something more than it is. A strange thing that took place on a cold November afternoon in Northern Indiana. An occasion to revel in the prospect of a fried chicken feast. An excuse for NU's Twitter account to zing NBC. It was not an accurate reflection of what this Northwestern team is capable of.