Any doubts as to the legitimacy of this Northwestern team were put to bed on Saturday, as the Wildcats came one redzone conversion short of sending the game at No. 6 Ohio State into overtime. But after a costly holding penalty forced Northwestern into an eventual field goal and Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett ran for 35 yards on 3rd and 10, the Wildcats, despite a terrific effort, left Columbus with the loss everyone expected them to take.
"Right now, our record says we're an average football team," Pat Fitzgerald said after the loss.
Perhaps such a simplistic criteria for assessing this team is too harsh; Northwestern sits at 3-2 in conference play with the two Big Ten losses coming to teams ranked inside the top 10 of the College Football Playoff Ranking. In last week's edition of this article, we asked if sufficient evidence to essentially discard the first two games of this season (losses to Western Michigan and Illinois St.) existed when judging this team. The last four games this team has played—three victories and the narrow loss to Ohio State—depict a team that has made monumental strides since losing to Illinois St.
After shaky performances against Michigan State and Iowa, the defense, dealing with the tactical and emotional loss of newly retired Matthew Harris, provided its second solid performance in a row in limiting the Buckeyes to just 24 points at the Horseshoe. On the offensive side of the ball, coordinator Mick McCall called another gem, getting the ball out of Clayton Thorson's hands quickly to alleviate pressure on the offensive line. Thorson played smart football, his confidence growing visibly with each game, certainly buoyed by having a receiver in Austin Carr who, after eight games, seems patently unstoppable.
These are all positive developments for sure, and Northwestern has proven it can play with just about anyone. Because of this, there's still optimism surrounding this team, confidence that it's better than its record depicts. But the Wildcats still haven't pulled off that one performance that consummates all the progress. Sure, the victories at Michigan State and Iowa were nice, as was beating Indiana. But in Northwestern's biggest challenges — vs. Western Michigan (surprisingly), vs. Nebraska, at Ohio State — victories have proven elusive. It's one thing to play really good teams tough. It's quite another to actually beat them. And because Northwestern did itself no favors in non-conference play, the time to convert that progress into concrete success in the form of a season-defining win is running out.
A (last?) golden chance presents itself on Saturday in the form of No. 8 Wisconsin. It's virtually certain that Northwestern is going to reach at least 6-6 and become bowl eligible, even with a loss on Saturday. The Wildcats have shown the consistency necessary to inspire confidence in their ability to win two of three games against Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois. That's not a terrible outcome for a season that many wrote off after a 1-3 start.
Yet the performance in Columbus will leave Northwestern and its fans wanting more, believing this team is capable of more than just bowl eligibility. A victory over Wisconsin on Saturday would feel like the summation of weeks of progress and serve as a testament to just how far this team has come. And it would put Northwestern, at 5-4, with a realistic chance to finish 8-4 after a catastrophic September.
But a loss would put Northwestern at 4-5 with every chance for a signature win having slipped through its grasp. Even if the Wildcats bounce back and finish with three consecutive wins, we'll be left wondering what could have been. What could have been if Thorson didn't fumble on the 1-yard line against Western Michigan? What could have been if the offense hit its stride earlier? What could have been if Northwestern had converted that first-and-goal in Columbus?
A victory Saturday would epitomize a remarkable turnaround and set up Northwestern for a 7-1 mark in its last 8 games, while a loss would greatly lower the ceiling on a season that, if the last four games are any evidence, could have been so much more.
Saturday will go a long way in determining how we remember this season.