MINNEAPOLIS — Northwestern has faced adversity at various points this season. And after a blowout loss to Minnesota, it’ll have to do it again.
Earlier in the season, this adversity came in the form of a string of discouraging defeats, notably the Illinois State debacle. When Northwestern travelled to Kinnick Stadium to begin its October schedule, the pressure may have reached a boiling point. The Hawkeyes had come in to Evanston and demolished Northwestern 40-10 the year before, the Wildcats needed a spark—and a win.
Northwestern had just lost to Nebraska 24-13, but that game wasn’t nearly as close as the scoreline may appear. The team sat at just 1-3, and hadn’t even hit the thought-to-be grueling October stretch of the season. The possibility of a reaching a bowl game looked bleak, and the possibility of a winning season even bleaker.
But the Wildcats responded in Iowa City, and the offense came alive like we had never before seen in the Clayton Thorson era, en route to a 38-31 win.
Fast forward a little over a month and a half, and Northwestern will confront adversity yet again.
The Wildcats had everything to play for Saturday: clinching bowl eligibility, keeping the chance for a winning regular season alive and beating a Big Ten West rival.
None of those possibilities, however, came to fruition Saturday after a lackluster and uninspired performance.
The loss leaves fans and those who follow the team thinking, ‘Is this the same team we saw go toe-to-toe with Ohio State in the Horseshoe? Is this the same team that went into Kinnick and shocked the Hawkeyes?’
Trying to understand Northwestern’s inconsistency is difficult. Sometimes the team fires on all cylinders, and sometimes the team looks completely overmatched to teams that conventional wisdom says Northwestern should beat, or at least compete with.
The inconsistency is by no means on the backs of just one position group, but no unit on the team exemplifies this mind-boggling roller-coaster ride of a season better than the offensive line.
“We’ve typically gone where the offensive line has taken us,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been inconsistent up there, and we were inconsistent there [against Minnesota].”
Simplifying the team’s struggles to the offensive line doesn’t come to close to telling the full story of Northwestern’s season.
The defense has regressed, but it hasn’t been a precipitous drop; it ranks 27th in S&P+, compared to fifth last season. The offense has improved a lot (111th last season to 58th this season), which was more or less no surprise after just how weak it was last season.
Based on the stats, Northwestern has a solid-but-not-great defense and a mediocre offense. There isn’t an elite unit on this team that can carry the team every week, and as a result, the Wildcats have trouble putting together 60 quality minutes of football in a given week.
On the field, this trend is clear.
On offense, Northwestern often has trouble finishing drives, ranking 84th according to S&P+. Against Minnesota, this lack of efficiency in the opposition’s territory was on full display. Northwestern made it inside the Minnesota 30-yard line five times, but scored on just two of these drives.
“[The offense] just didn’t get it done, in [the Minnesota] end of the field especially,” wide receiving Andrew Scanlan said. “It’s been the story of the year, though. Not just today.”
Within the context of the season as a whole, the inconsistency results in a team that shows flashes of brilliance at times, but not enough to really put decent-to-good teams away.
Figuring in the Minnesota loss, Northwestern’s scoring margin is +21 this season, but the team’s record is 5-6. Last season the team was 10-3, but its scoring margin was just +12.
This disparity also hasn’t been a huge surprise. Before the season, a lot of people predicted that this team may in fact be better than last season’s team, but finish with a worse record because of a harder schedule, and that may very well be the truth—the results just don’t really prove it.
The team knows about its inconsistency issue. It pervades around most post-loss press conferences, and Pat Fitzgerald and his players alike can’t really explain it. Austin Carr has said in the past that the team is tired of being close.
But that has been the story of this season, and that proverbial hump still exists against the powers of the conference, let alone the Minnesotas of the world.
While it seems unlikely that the team solves the larger issues it has in a week, Northwestern has another important hump it still needs to get over: guaranteed bowl eligibility.
The Wildcats are probably going to a bowl game whether they beat Illinois or not because of the team’s high Academic Progress Rate, but a win next week is still of the utmost importance.
Losing to in-state rival Illinois would turn an inconsistent season sprinkled with bright spots into a wildly disappointing one in which Northwestern backs into a bowl game (in all likelihood).
“We just gotta look forward to next one,” defensive tackle C.J. Robbins said. “Our backs are against the wall, we gotta win.”
Indeed, Mr. Robbins, indeed.