After Northwestern began the season with home losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State, the prospects of reaching a bowl game—let alone finishing with a winning record—were dim. There was a sense that, given the Wildcats' difficult road conference schedule, the final mark could get ugly. Like, 3-9 or 4-8 ugly.
Heading into Week 3, Ohio State was No. 3 in the AP Poll, Michigan State No. 12, Iowa No. 13 and Wisconsin No. 9. Games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State were virtually penciled in as losses (as was the Nov. 5 home game against Wisconsin). How was a team that lost to a non-Power Five foe and an FCS team at home (with only seven points against the FCS team) going to compete in such a brutal stretch of road games against top-15 opponents?
But if Northwestern was to have any chance of reaching a bowl game after the putrid start, the Wildcats absolutely had to win at least one of those four games.
Things change in college football, and they change quickly. Coming into its game against Northwestern, Iowa lost at home to North Dakota State before scraping by a terrible Rutgers team. Before falling to the Wildcats, Michigan State had lost three in a row after losing five games total from 2013-2015.
Those once-unwinnable contests became, well, winnable. And most importantly, Northwestern took advantage, playing its two best games of the season en route to monumental road conference victories over teams that, while struggling, appeared in last season's Rose Bowl and College Football Playoff, respectively. Sure, the wins aren't as impressive as they'd be if Iowa and Michigan State remained highly ranked, but they are still wins that seemed really unlikely at the beginning of the season.
The Illinois State loss still sticks out like a sore thumb—the Redbirds lost their next four after the win at Ryan Field—but it's starting to feel like a distant memory. The loss to Western Michigan, which is now 7-0 and No. 20 in the AP Poll, doesn't seem so egregious anymore.
Football doesn't work this way, but consider the following scenario: Northwestern is about one yard (Clayton Thorson's closing-minute fumble against WMU on the goal-line) and three inches (the Redbirds' game-winning field goal nicked the left upright) from being 5-1, with the sole loss coming to No. 8 Nebraska.
Northwestern is firing on all cylinders offensively; the 54 points scored against MSU was the most ever put up by a visiting team at Spartan Stadium. The success is coming with a really nice run-pass balance that's been missing from the offense the past couple years. Against Iowa, Northwestern threw for 164 yards and ran for 198; against Michigan State, the Wildcats threw for 281 yards and rushed for 209. Here's a clear byproduct of the balance: Austin Carr leads the Big Ten in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, while Justin Jackson leads the Big Ten in rushing yards.
"I can throw it to one of the best receivers in the country. I can hand it off to one of the best running backs in the country," Clayton Thorson said after Saturday's game.
Thorson showed maturity in bouncing back from an early pick-six on Saturday to shred Michigan State's defense for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns with a career-high 77 percent completion rate. In his last two games, Thorson has thrown for 6 touchdowns against only 1 interception and quietly ranks fourth in passing yards/game in the Big Ten. Perhaps Thorson's development has rounded a bit of a corner.
"He's maturing (in) the offense," Pat Fitzgerald said Saturday. "We're six games in. He's 19 games into his career. He's starting to become comfortable, his confidence is building."
It's on the defensive side of the ball, the unit that carried the Wildcats to 10 wins last season, that Northwestern is having issues. This is especially true in the secondary, whose Saturday performance Fitz called "abysmal." There are too many miscommunications resulting in explosive plays over the top, an issue the coach harped on in both his postgame and Monday press conferences. That will need to get fixed if the Wildcats are to continue winning. Relying on outscoring teams the way they did Iowa and Michigan State isn't sustainable.
Saturday's homecoming matchup against Indiana is massive in terms of building on the momentum built over the last two games. Northwestern needs to stash this win away with a trip to the Horseshoe and a date with Wisconsin looming immediately after. Ohio State and Wisconsin are still playing really good football, and Northwestern will be heavy underdogs in both contests.
A victory Saturday would put the Wildcats at 4-3, and with their last three games (at Purdue, at Minnesota, vs. Illinois) all winnable, they'd be in really good shape to earn a bowl bid. They'd even have a distinct possibility of going 7-5 in a season many thought was lost by Sept. 10.
Should they lose, however, there's a good chance Northwestern heads into those last three games at 3-6, mired in a three-game losing streak. That's a back-against-the-wall, must-win-all-three-for-a-bowl scenario that Fitz & Co. want no part of. Avoiding it is simple enough: Win on Saturday.