A new feature to our gameweek schedule this season is Where Are We Wednesday, a mid-week evaluation of where the team currently sits in the big picture of things, whether that be the Big Ten West, the Big Ten or even the nation. As Northwestern grinds through a 12-game regular season, that location changes every week based on what both the team and the teams around them do. Here's the Week 6 edition.
That was a big one. A biiiiiiiiig one.
After losing to Iowa by a combined score of 88-17 over the past two seasons, Northwestern bounced back from a home loss to Nebraska by upsetting the Hawkeyes on the road in a 38-31 thriller. The first leg of Northwestern's remarkably brutal stretch of games (at Iowa, at Michigan State, vs. Indiana and at Ohio State) is behind the Wildcats, who, despite being 2-3, suddenly find themselves with a bit of momentum heading into the bye week.
"We had never beaten Iowa before," linebacker Anthony Walker said after the win. "This is definitely a win that could turn our season around."
One win does not turn a season around, but the victory righted the ship, so to speak. If Northwestern's 2016 season was a car swerving off the road, the win at Kinnick Stadium got the car back under control. Whether it will remain on course is yet to be seen.
Coming into the matchup against Iowa, things looked bleak. Few expected Northwestern to win more than one game of that stretch, meaning even if the Wildcats did sweep their last three games of the year (at Purdue, at Minnesota, vs. Illinois), they'd finish 5-7 and miss a bowl game for the third time in four seasons.
Our Will Ragatz had this to say in last week's Where are We Wednesday:
"We may sound like a broken record, but facing a team that has struggled recently, Northwestern still has a tiny, flickering light at the end of the tunnel. But that light is fleeting quickly. If Northwestern loses to Iowa on Saturday and continues to lose, the rest of the season and the program will be just like the man in the tunnel. Lost and without direction. And ultimately, hopeless for the forseeable future, until there are major changes."
But Northwestern came through with its most complete performance of the season. Now, a 6-6 finish is plausible, the season salvageable.
They'll likely need to beat Indiana at home, Purdue and Minnesota on the road, and Illinois at home to get to the postseason. The next contest against a furious Michigan State team in East Lansing will be difficult regardless of how the Spartans have looked recently. The trip to the Horseshoe will almost definitely get ugly (quickly), and Wisconsin was impressive in a losing effort to Michigan and will fancy its chances to win the Big Ten West. Thus, the four other games are must-wins.
The team that beat Iowa on the road is perfectly capable of getting that done. The team that lost to Illinois State at home isn't, and that's what makes it so difficult to assess where exactly Northwestern is. There's just too much variance from week-to-week, too many unknowns. It goes to show what a difference a week can make in college football; yes, there are still major flaws with this team and this program, but winning makes the weaknesses of last week less glaring, with the positives from this week fresher in the mind.
There were plenty of good signs on both sides of the ball in Saturday's game. Clayton Thorson didn't turn the ball over, Justin Jackson got back on track and into the end zone, and Austin Carr is legitimately one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, if not the nation. This offense has shown signs of being an explosive group throughout the year, only to be hampered by turnovers and an inability to punch the ball into the end zone. It was able to convert on Saturday, but what was most encouraging was the balance offensively. After throwing 39 and 37 times against Duke and Nebraska, respectively, Thorson threw it a much more manageable 30 times.
Wins and offensive displays like these will ease the pressure on offensive coordinator Mick McCall, if any such pressure does exist. Fitzgerald relishes the opportunity to not-so-subtly jab reporters after victories like these, which serve as evidence to him that he's making the right decision in preserving staff stability.
"Six years ago, everyone wanted me to fire our defensive staff. But you stay the course, you get better and you win games," Fitz said.
Defensively, holding a team whose offense is predicated on establishing the running game to just 79 yards was key. And Ifeadi Odenigbo was a menace, tossing Iowan lineman aside like tackling dummies en route to four sacks. Let's remember, Odenigbo was arguably Northwestern's most-highly touted recruit ever. He was ranked 51st overall in his class and chose Northwestern over Ohio State, USC, Michigan and Oklahoma, to name a few..
"I just think that Ifeadi's been through a lot," Fitzgerald said of the senior. "He comes in with unrealistic hype. That's the nature of recruiting these days. It's a blessing and a curse that you get from the dot com sites. He had an inflated, I think, image from the standpoint of external factors coming in."
Perhaps Saturday was the type of game to kickstart the rest of Odenigbo's senior season.
Looking ahead, Northwestern will get two weeks to prepare for a Michigan State team that has lost two consecutive games for the first time since 2012. The Spartans are out of the rankings for the first time since 2013, and for a team that made last year's Playoff and entered with similar hopes this year, that's unacceptable. The Spartans are shaking up their offensive line a bit in an effort to get back on track at home against BYU before returning to conference play.
It's still a daunting task, but that game is no longer virtually unwinnable for Northwestern. A win would be surprising, not shocking, and if Northwestern can pull off yet another road win against a Big Ten blue blood, a three-game conference wining streak would be firmly on the table.
Northwestern has a lot to address during this bye week, as Zach Pereles details here (spoiler: Kick/punt coverage, get healthy, maintain balance on offense, study Indiana and remain pissed off). But the season no longer feels lost, and that's a testament to the fight in this football team. It's been difficult to predict Northwestern this year and it will continue to be difficult going forward. But if the Wildcats can address some of their glaring weaknesses, ride this momentum and win the four games they realistically can, bowl season is a distinct possibility. That's something we couldn't say two weeks ago.