Northwestern is going bowling.
They were at times vexing, at others exhilarating, but when the clock struck zeroes, the Wildcats had done just enough to put the demons of Memorial Stadium to rest.
Is Northwestern the Big Ten West title contender we thought they were after Minnesota? No, probably not. But this team has always been solid, built on a defense that still makes plays despite being banged up and an offense that, while perhaps prone to periods of struggle, can always bust out for big gains.
Northwestern’s first half offense was as bad as we’ve seen all year. Take away two big Clayton Thorson runs that combined for 107 yards, and the Wildcats had 21 yards of total offense.
Wide receivers had the dropsies, Thorson struggled to identify blitzes and hit open guys, running backs had no room to work and basically everything was awful. As Pat Fitzgerald said, "We didn’t necessarily play great, at all, early." And that was being generous.
But Thorson did bust that 40- and 60-plus yarders to give Northwestern 10 points, and Nick VanHoose took a pass from Tommy Armstrong to the crib for seven more.
Northwestern was leading a football game 17-12 at halftime when it had 16 yards of passing offense and four rushing yards from Justin Jackson. That’s insane.
But the offense got it together in the second half when the team needed it the most. Clayton Thorson sprung to life. He chalked it up to slowing down and seeing the game more clearly. Whatever the change, he came out more accurate throwing the ball. His numbers will look worse than his performance because of the spreading contagion of drops that has infected the wide receiver corps. Still, his 37-yard TD up the seam to Dan Vitale was awfully pretty.
Of course, there’s always those legs. If your defense forgets about Thorson in the pocket for one second, he can get loose for not just five or 10 yards, but 20 or 40 yards. Having Thorson at quarterback mandates that opposing defenses either play a spy, or at least zone coverage. When Nebraska tried to play straight man, they were burned on the ground. Fitzgerald said that Thorson’s legs "won us the Stanford game." It isn’t a stretch to say they did the same thing this afternoon in Lincoln.
The defense, while not the dominating unit we saw against Minnesota or Stanford or Duke, did just enough. Dean Lowry was an absolute monster, tallying a Northwestern record six tackles for loss. He and Anthony Walker (13 tackles) shouldered the load for a secondary that looked as injury-plagued as it is. The injuries to Matt Harris and Kyle Quiero are not minor. Keith Watkins is a solid tackler and has a very bright future ahead of him, but right now, he’s a big step down from Harris, and Tommy Armstrong picked on him all day long. Without Quiero in the nickelback role, Marcus McShepard had to come in and play outside in those situations. It’s a difficult spot to be in.
But the ins and outs of this game can be discussed more at length during the bye week. For right now, Northwestern has put a tourniquet on its arm. The Wildcats have an extra week to lick their wounds and fix some of the problems they’ve had running the ball and defending the pass. And more than anything else, they’re finally back in the postseason.
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Every player who was asked about what it meant to get back into a bowl game said some variation of "six isn’t the destination, but it’s a positive step." And it’s a big positive step. This team is still young. Very young. And to clinch the postseason and the extra practices it will bring, before October is done, is big.
Competing for Big Ten titles is still obviously the goal. It didn't take long for Pat Fitzgerald to point out how Northwestern has "given away control of the West." But this team wasn’t supposed to make the jump from bowl-less to Big Ten Title. This team was supposed to be around 4-4 by now. Instead it's 6-2, and none of the teams remaining on their schedule look unbeatable. The Wildcats won’t run the table, and they won’t win the Big Ten West but the postseason is locked up. That alone should give Wildcat fans a whole lot to be optimistic about.