It’s been a strange season.
It’s as if Northwestern football went to a party, got particularly inebriated in the first twenty minutes, and then had a really constructive networking session with Bill Walsh (networking, after all, is the Northwestern way of life). Northwestern was the life of the party for a few hours, but the ultra-fratty owners of the B1G house kicked him out. Now Northwestern is sitting at Domino’s, waiting for a crappy $7 pizza to be delivered by Mitch Leidner. Purdue was the 10 percent discount code that Northwestern applied at the counter. The hangover is already setting in.
Metaphors aside, it really feels as if Northwestern is playing out the string in these last few Big Ten games. After taking care of business in West Lafayette, Northwestern needs to beat either Minnesota or Illinois to secure bowl eligibility. From a competitive standpoint, the situation is exactly the same as what Will Ragatz laid out last week (thanks Purdue). Thus, I would like to take a step back for this particular “Where are we Wednesday” to answer some bigger concerns.
Thus far, the narrative has been one of initial optimism fumbled away into oblivion. The close game luck hasn’t returned. The clock management has been lacking. Mistakes have been made, but there have also been flashes of brilliance. Northwestern is 5-5, and as a result, the Pinstripe Bowl looms. Or somewhere else. Who knows? After a 10-2 season in which Northwestern flirted with New Year’s Six bowls and potential glory, the prospects of a 7-5/6-6 year and a low-end bowl game against an ACC team like Georgia Tech can seem positively boring (assuming Northwestern makes it through these two games with a win). And if you’re not bored, then I can assure you that the students certainly are, with exams and Thanksgiving just around the corner.
But from a larger perspective, I can’t help but remember the mentality following last year’s game against Purdue. Northwestern’s offense was incomprehensibly bad in that game, despite the inherent benefits of playing Purdue at home. After the game ended, it seemed clear that Northwestern wasn’t quite as good as its solid record indicated. Zack Oliver came in to relieve Thorson via coach’s decision in that game. For about three quarters, Northwestern’s offense scored 7 points against Purdue. That game was tied with less than five minutes remaining. Wondering whether Thorson had what it takes to be a winning quarterback was a legitimate concern.
This year, Northwestern couldn’t stop scoring against Purdue in the second half. Thorson looks poised, confident and ready to lead the team for the next two years, even he still makes a few boneheaded plays. The defense may not be quite as good, but a great game from Montre Hartage and the appearance of stellar new faces like Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller should leave fans with optimism for 2017.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but this team feels better than last year’s team, and many of the peripheral numbers bear that out. Last year, the team ended with a plus-12 point differential in the regular season. Through ten games, Northwestern is already at plus-38 point differential, with two winnable games coming up. Right now, the team is 47th in S&P+, already nine spots higher in S&P+ than it was last season. If Northwestern can pick up two more convincing wins, it could easily land in the top 35-40 range. Whatever the case, the team is certainly more fun to watch.
In fact, much of what we wanted to see from Northwestern in terms of development in 2016 has already happened. Austin Carr has turned into a folk hero and his younger compatriots at the position have performed admirably. The running backs are as dynamic as ever, and John Moten IV’s game against Purdue bodes well for the future. The play-calling has improved drastically. After a shaky start, Northwestern has found new defensive contributors and received a resurgence from Ifeadi Odenigbo. With a semi-favorable schedule and a few lucky breaks in 2017, Northwestern has the pieces to be very good.
And yet, this year’s team is 5-5, and the excitement levels for this weekend’s matchup against future Domino’s pizza deliveryman Mitch Leidner seem low.
However, Northwestern football cannot fall into the trap of subdued expectations or excitement. The difference between seven wins and six wins may seem trivial in the short-term, but the creation of a long-term period of stability for Northwestern is most certainly not trivial. I think we can agree that Northwestern over-achieved last year, even if you are a card-carrying member of the “STATS ARE FOR LOSERS” consortium. Northwestern has slightly under-achieved in 2016, but it’s vitally important that Northwestern does not under-achieve too much. We are not far removed from back-to-back 5-7 seasons. If Northwestern wants to escape the “
mediocrity Indiana zone” of the Big Ten and really contend for championships, it needs to keep up the winning momentum and go for a 7-5 record. And we need to give the team as much support as possible.
And besides, from an even wider lens, what could be more fun than college football Saturdays? As someone who originally came from an NFL-dominated background, college football has been a revelation to my sports experience. I am not looking forward to that stretch of time when Northwestern games end and bowl games haven’t started. I am not looking forward to watching mediocre NFL teams play on national television (this week is the Green Bay Packers vs. the Washington Professional Football players!). College football, even in boring Boilermaker blowouts, can give us truly incredible moments, like Northwestern carrying ex-Navy SEAL Tom Hruby off the field the day after Veteran’s Day. I will miss it, and I don’t want to take anything for granted.
Northwestern plays Minnesota on Saturday. I suggest we get hyped.