Arguably, this Saturday's game in Ann Arbor against the No. 18 Michigan Wolverines, at the Big House on Homecoming, is the biggest one for Northwestern football since the infamous 2013 GameDay loss at Ryan Field to Ohio State, which sent the Wildcats into a season-ending tailspin.
Northwestern ended up going 5-7 that year, which, after a surprising 4-0 start, is about as bad as it gets. If the Wildcats could have beaten then-No. 4 Ohio State on that fateful October night, the possibilities seemed endless. But they didn't, and everything started going wrong.
This week, Pat Fitzgerald is hoping to avoid a similar result and the ensuing fallout. The problem is that this weekend's opponent is none other than Michigan, against whom Northwestern has lost four consecutive games, dating back to 2011. Each of the losses has been worse than the one before it, so let's recap them for the sake of thoroughness:
The infamous M00N game. No need to rehash this 10-9 Michigan win on Northwestern's Parents' Weekend, which ended when current Denver Bronco Trevor Siemian fell down when attempting to throw a game-winning two-point conversion. If that score or previous sentence doesn't say it all, nothing will.
Michigan won this matchup 27-19 after three overtimes. The game ended on a Siemian desperation heave, which was intercepted. The insanity came at the end of regulation though, when Michigan, down by 3, completed a pass to NU's 27-yard line with 11 seconds left. The Wolverines had no timeouts, and the receiver was tackled in bounds. They rushed their field goal team onto the field in the waning seconds, with the holder literally sliding into place. They may or may not have been set, but nonetheless, Brendan Gibbons drilled the field goal to tie the score at 9. Michigan would go on to win in OT.
Another overtime affair, won by the Wolverines by a score of 38-31. But again, it was the end of regulation that will live on in the nightmares of NU fans. Northwestern took a late fourth quarter lead on a Siemian touchdown pass to Tony Jones. With Michigan in possession at their own 38-yard line with 18 seconds left, the game look all but sealed. But the Wildcats inexplicably left Roy Roundtree in single coverage downfield, and Devin Gardner's pass to his big target was batted up into the air and fell right into Roundtree's arms. Gibbons kicked a field goal to tie, Gardner gave Michigan the lead on a touchdown run in overtime, and NU was stuffed on a fourth-and-two run. More heartbreak.
The only one of these games to not be close, No. 12 Michigan scored 28 unanswered second half points to coast to a 42-24 victory. The Wildcats had a 10-point lead at the half but couldn't get much going after the intermission while Denard Robinson, now with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, ran wild to make this a blowout.
Northwestern not only could have won three of those four games. The Wildcats perhaps should have won them.
This year's NU team is clearly different than the ones from 2011-14, but is there something to be said for the Wolverines' stranglehold over the Wildcats this decade?
If Pat Fitzgerald's squad is actually as good as its No. 13 AP ranking attests to — and if it's going to contend for a potential Big Ten title — then it's going to need to overcome its Michigan issues and win this tough road game. All losing streaks have to end at some point, and there's no better team to end this heartbreaking one than this current Northwestern squad.
So there's reason for optimism. But there was also reason for optimism in 2014. And 2013. And 2012. The last three years have not been fun.