COLUMBUS, Ohio – It didn’t feel much like late October in Columbus.
The sun shone brightly on “The Shoe,” packed with Buckeye fans clad in red, matching the color-changing leaves on the trees surrounding the stadium.
Halloween weekend in the Big Ten is supposed to be gray and windy. Throw in a little rain or even snow, if you’re lucky. But Saturday, it was an unusual 79 degrees at kickoff.
And, as Northwestern (4-4, 3-2 Big Ten) battled No. 6 Ohio State (7-1, 4-41) into the evening, the last weekend in October began to feel even more foreign.
To be frank, October has not been kind to the Wildcats during Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure.
From 2006-2015, Northwestern went 13-25 during this month, for a winning percentage of 34.2. In its non-October games, the program has played just a tick under .500 during Fitzgerald’s tenure. The last time the Wildcats had a winning record during the month was 2009.
And, it appeared 2016 would be no different.
In July, Fitzgerald called the team’s October schedule – at Iowa, a bye week, at Michigan State, vs. Indiana and at Ohio State – a “gauntlet.”
At that time, Fitzgerald just wanted to make sure those games meant something significant in terms of the scope of the season, but there’s no way he could have foreseen how it played out.
"We've got to put ourselves in a position to have those games be significant by the way we play prior to that," Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Day. "Otherwise, we're just another blip on the radar.
“We have got to start fast with four at home."
His team did the opposite. A one-point loss to Western Michigan was compounded by a three-point loss to Illinois State. The bleeding stopped with a home win over Duke before a loss to Nebraska sent the team to 1-3 with what looked to be a brutal month looming.
But the Wildcats flipped Fitzgerald’s script in October, finding an offensive rhythm in a 38-31 win at Iowa that it rode to back-to-back wins over a struggling Michigan State team and a feisty Indiana squad, making the month’s games significant.
So, at 4-3, Northwestern came to Columbus looking to complete the first undefeated October in Fitzgerald’s tenure.
But the October blues seemed to return as the game got underway with Ohio State, looking to avenge a shocking loss at Penn State the previous week, got out to a 10-0 lead with under 10 minutes gone in the first quarter. But Northwestern weathered the storm and settled in, eventually putting itself in a position to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. The visitors could only muster a field goal, though, and the following Ohio State drive iced the game.
The 24-20 loss pushed Northwestern back to .500 at 4-4, a record Fitzgerald said, after the game, was indicative of “an average team.”
But right now, it’s hard to look at this Northwestern team and call it “average.”
“We’re a .500 football team and we know we shouldn’t be,” sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson said.
Added superback Garett Dickerson: “We definitely know that we’re much better than our record shows.”
The October version of Northwestern was one with an often-explosive passing game and a consistent running attack, highlighted by a 54-point outburst in the win at Michigan State. It barely resembled the squad that put up just seven points against Illinois State.
But immediately after Northwestern’s loss, Fitzgerald wouldn’t budge when asked if he would call the 3-1 turnaround during October acceptable.
“I wanted to be 4-0,” he said.
But if making the games “significant” was the goal in July, it’s clear his team reached it. Northwestern, even with the loss, finds itself in the thick of the Big Ten West division title hunt squarely because of its October performance.
“We took October on as a challenge as a program and I think we responded,” Fitzgerald said later.
But his focus has already moved to the November slate, he said.
At least on paper, it looks more favorable than October did. The toughest test? The first one, when Wisconsin (7-2, 3-2) comes to Evanston on Nov. 5. The Badgers will undoubtedly re-enter the national top 10 after taking down Nebraska in overtime Saturday night, a win that thoroughly opened up the division title race. Four of the West’s seven teams (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota) trail first-place Nebraska by just one game in the standings.
But, out of that group, it seems clear that Northwestern and Wisconsin have the two best hopes of catching the ‘Huskers before the season’s end, based in part on the Badgers’ defeat of Nebraska and Northwestern’s road win at Iowa.
That’s what makes Saturday’s matchup with Wisconsin so intriguing. And, with Nebraska visiting Columbus in Week 10, the winner of the Northwestern-Wisconsin game will likely move into a first-place tie.
A win would make the rest of November—here’s that word again—“significant.” The Wildcats finish the month traveling to Purdue and Minnesota, before hosting Illinois, a softer schedule, on paper, than what they endured over the last month.
“Now we’re going to find out where we’re at as a program in November,” Fitzgerald said.