No one will ever accuse Northwestern of making things easy on itself.
It’s been an up-and-down, rollercoaster ride of a 2016 season for the Wildcats, who now have one very clear, very important task: Beat Illinois. With Northwestern sitting at 5-6 and just one regular season game to go, a lot will be on the line when the Fighting Illini make the 160-mile trip up to Ryan Field this Saturday.
Of course, the hat is up for grabs. Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t deny that this game carries a little extra weight for that reason; he badly wants to keep the Land of Lincoln trophy in Evanston for another year.
“You get excited about playing your rival,” Fitzgerald said. “Our guys will be excited for it...we’ve got one trophy that we play for and it’s a big deal to us.”
Beating Illinois is always important, but in the bigger picture, Saturday’s game is about so much more than that for Northwestern. A win would guarantee bowl eligibility for the Wildcats, and the importance of that simply can’t be overstated.
Looking to the future, reaching the postseason this year is critical for the team’s development. The extra 10-15 practices Fitzgerald and his staff would get to run in preparation for a bowl game would be invaluable for a roster that will count on contributions from plenty of young players next season. If Northwestern can’t find a way to win on Saturday, that’s a countless number of reps that they won’t get to have until the spring.
The Wildcats will almost certainly get into a bowl game at 5-7 based on its Academic Progress Rate, but that’s not how the players view it. They don’t want to leave anything to chance. For them, this is a do-or-die game. Getting to stay together as a team for an additional month is the main thing motivating them for this game.
“It’s a one-game playoff,” said senior right tackle Eric Olson. “You definitely want to beat your in-state rival, there’s always a little something to that, but the most important thing for us is getting bowl-eligible and getting another month together.”
For seniors like Olson, the possibility that they could be days away from playing the final game of their careers is a very real one. It’s Senior Day this weekend, but a loss would make the celebration of 17 careers bittersweet. Especially with one senior, Austin Carr (whose status for Saturday’s game is still up in the air), so close to setting several program records and perhaps taking home the Biletnikoff Award, this game means a lot for everyone on the roster.
Fitzgerald, as well as all of the non-seniors on the roster, want to give Carr’s magical season the ending it deserves and send guys like Andrew Scanlan, CJ Robbins and Ifeadi Odenigbo out the right way.
“I’m just very thankful for our seniors,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a great motivator. You want to send your seniors out with a win on their Senior Day.”
This game is also important when looking at the big-picture trajectory of the program. Northwestern followed up a 10-win season in 2012 with back-to-back 5-7 seasons, then got back to the 10 wins in last year’s matchup with the Illini. Now, Fitzgerald is one dud away from being 5-7 once again, and a winning season, even with a bowl win, would be impossible. It would be another huge step for the program, perpetuating an identity of inconsistency and calling into question the overall progress the team seemed to be making back in October.
On the other hand, Fitzgerald has an opportunity to prove that he has the Wildcats heading in the right direction.
A win would give Northwestern the chance to win just the third bowl game in program history and finish with a winning record. This is the exact same situation the 2014 team faced, holding a 5-6 record and needing to beat Illinois to make the postseason. The Wildcats gave up 47 points and lost by two touchdowns. To show that Fitzgerald can get the Wildcats back to his stated goal of competing for a Big Ten championship in the coming years, that result has to change.
“This is a completely different team,” said Godwin Igwebuike, who played in that 2014 game. “We’re going to attack it like our backs are against the wall because that’s the reality of the situation. I think we lacked some passion in that game but I don’t expect that to happen this time around.”
Finishing with a 7-6 record is so, so different from falling back to 5-7 again and making a bowl based on your APR ranking (for what it’s worth, Northwestern is second in APR behind only Duke). Between the extra practices for the young guys, the recruiting benefits, the national exposure of playing in a bowl game and the possibility of ending a season that started as poorly as it did on a high note, there really is a lot to play for on Saturday.
“If you’re not excited for this game, you might as well just go home right now,” Igwebuike said. “You have a challenge in front of you where, either you’re staying a couple weeks at home with nothing to do — I know I’ve got nothing to do at home — (or we can) go out and get this dub. That’s what we all want to do, we want to stay here and extend this season for out seniors.”
Oh, and don’t forget about that hat-shaped trophy either.