There is no such thing as a good loss. Every defeat counts the same in a team’s record, and as Pat Fitzgerald and his players said after Saturday’s game, you are only as good as your record. For Northwestern, that meant Saturday’s 24-20 heartbreaking loss to Ohio State was an especially bitter pill to swallow as it returned back to .500.
But there are such things as encouraging losses. And Saturday’s was just that.
Last year, Northwestern played two conference blue bloods — the teams traditionally at or near the top of one of the nation’s finest conferences — and lost by a combined score of 78-10. Add in a 45-6 bowl game loss to Tennessee, and the Wildcats were actually outscored by 29 points against FBS competition last year. On the biggest of stages, Northwestern, despite being 5-0, 5-1 and 10-2 going into those three games, got shellacked. Even en route to a 10-win season, the Wildcats weren’t seen as legitimate.
Even with a worse record, the feeling around this team after Saturday’s loss is just different than it was last season.
In October alone, the Wildcats beat Iowa and Michigan State, two programs having down years but nonetheless significant players in the Big Ten for the past decade (and for Iowa, much much longer than that). After beating Indiana, Northwestern readied for Columbus and the No. 6 Buckeyes. The spread reached 27 or 28 in some places. Of our eight staffers who submitted a prediction, seven had the Wildcats losing by double digits. It wasn’t supposed to be pretty for the visitors, especially after Ohio State lost to Penn State the previous week.
And early, it looked like that prophecy would come true. The offense couldn’t get anything going and the defense couldn’t stop the Buckeyes from putting up points. Same old Northwestern: Play some impressive football for extended periods of the season, but fail miserably at the biggest moment.
But this isn’t same old Northwestern; we’ve seen that throughout October. From top to bottom, for better or worse (but, on Saturday, mostly better), this team is different. Last year, the Wildcats were a large amount of points away from contending with teams of Ohio State’s caliber; this year, they were a few plays away from winning. And because of that, there’s tangible evidence that Pat Fitzgerald’s team is finally taking the strides in the right direction toward its goals of winning the Big Ten West and a Big Ten championship.
Sure, this may not be the best Buckeyes team of recent memory, but they still dot the “i” at Ohio Stadium, the scarlet and red still come out in droves, and Urban Meyer still brings in a massive amount of talent each and every year. And for 60 minutes, the Wildcats hung tough with the Buckeyes in every aspect on the road.
There wasn’t a single area in which the Wildcats truly looked overmatched. In the trenches, typically a place where the Buckeyes dominate, Northwestern creating enough running room for Justin Jackson, John Moten IV, Matt Alviti and Thorson to run for 148 yards on an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. Also, Thorson had sufficient time in the pocket to make his throws and was sacked just once.
Defensively, the Wildcats struggled to get pressure and allowed 5.1 yards per rush, too, but it never felt like the Buckeyes were dominant in any sense of the word. Superstar dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett was held to under 50 yards until the waning moments of the game, when he was able to rip off a 35-yard run — this just a month after Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. torched the Northwestern defense for 132 yards on just 13 carries.
Both of these trends were representative of the entire month of October, when Northwestern’s ground game and rush defense were highly improved against three teams historically known for being outstanding in those areas.
On the outside, despite missing three of their top four corners, the Wildcats were able to hang around using a true sophomore in his first season primarily playing defense and a junior who was a wide receiver 1.5 months ago. At every level, the Wildcats looked up to the task defensively — at one point forcing five Buckeye punts in a row — and stymied a team led by a Heisman contender and star athletes at its own home stadium.
Offensively, the Wildcats looked confident moving the ball against the nation’s seventh-best defense, according to S&P+. The 406 yards of total offense was the second-highest mark against Ohio State behind only Wisconsin; the Wildcats even out-did Oklahoma against the Buckeyes.
Clayton Thorson has quickly developed from an impediment to this team to an upper-tier Big Ten quarterback. He stands next to one of the nation’s top running backs and throws to the Big Ten’s best wide receiver.
The Wildcat offensive renaissance — more and more like a traditional spread, except it also features the ability to pack it in with guys like Jackson and Garrett Dickerson — has now put in the top-half nationally in terms of S&P. The Wildcat offense of the last month has been unbelievable considering how anemic it was in September. That the trend continued against Ohio State was the most encouraging sign of all.
There’s reason to believe in this team both in the immediate and long-term future, especially after it nearly aced its most challenging month. Immediately, the Wildcats remain major players in the Big Ten West with a month to go and the most challenging portion of the schedule behind them.
Thorson continues to play well, whether it’s thriving early or responding to deficits, and one can confidently say Northwestern will have the better quarterback in all of its remaining games if he stays healthy.
The defense put together staunch efforts against two high-powered offenses in the past two weeks and will continue to improve as the secondary’s newcomers gel. The Wildcats host Wisconsin with a chance to move into an essential tie for first in the West, and the Badgers haven’t won in Evanston in this millennium.
Long-term, though, the team’s prospects are all the more exciting, even coming off a loss. Of the most irreplaceable figures on this team, only Austin Carr will have exhausted his eligibility by season’s end. There’s youth all over this roster; only five starters from the offense and defense combined are seniors.
Over the past month, the young Wildcats have learned how to stop the run, run the ball and most importantly, beat quality opponents despite facing early adversity. hat trait is important for any team, but especially for one with so many players that have the opportunity to grow from these experiences ahead of them. This has been a trying year for Northwestern, coaches and players alike, and it has persevered and managed to win. And if it doesn’t win, it certainly won’t be a pushover like last year.
“I think it says something about the perseverance, the family on this team,” safety Godwin Igwebuike said. “These are games you want to come away with, but let it be known if you play us, it’s gonna be a battle. There’s no walking over us, there’s no getting past us without a scratch. It’s gonna be a battle no matter who you are.”
The Wildcats are scratching the surface of what Pat Fitzgerald wants them to be: tough, consistent, physical challengers for the division crown every year, even in losses. But if this last month, Ohio State included, was any indication, better things — Big Ten contention and wins over the conference’s premier football programs — are on the horizon.
They both might be here sooner rather than later.