As the waning moments of the fourth quarter progressed and each desperate Clayton Thorson heave fell to the turf, Northwestern’s chances for a Big Ten West title shriveled up like a raisin in the unseasonably pleasant November sun.
The faraway goal that became a potential reality — albeit an unlikely one — after a strong October had once again become postponed for yet another year. With chances to beat the best opponents on its schedule in back-to-back weeks, the Wildcats came up short. It wasn’t for a lack of effort. They just weren’t quite good enough, quite timely enough, or quite lucky enough to get it done.
So two major opportunities came and went without Northwestern capitalizing. But just because the goal of winning the West, always Pat Fitzgerald’s top priority and one he’s yet to achieve, doesn’t mean this season has lost meaning for both the 2016 team and the future.
Goal number one is to make a bowl game. When we talked this offseason about what would constitute a “failed” season, most of us mentioned a missed bowl game. For Northwestern to miss out on postseason play would just be unacceptable, especially considering the opponents left on the schedule.
A second criteria several of us mentioned was not finishing with a winning record. For Northwestern to finish above .500, it has to win out in the regular season or finish 6-6 and win a bowl game, which leads us to one of the main things we discussed in considering what would make this a successful season: winning a bowl game. Northwestern is 2-10 all time in bowl games. Given what this team has shown at times and the preseason expectations around the program, losing the lower-tier bowl game the Wildcats are slated to be in would be a major disappointment.
Northwestern finishing strong by winning the remainder of its games would show impressive fortitude and cement what has still been an incredible turnaround from the first four weeks of this season. It would not only guarantee a winning season, but also mean Northwestern would finish 6-3 in the Big Ten. Only one Fitzgerald team (last year’s) has finished with a better conference mark. And maybe it would help exorcise the demons of the follow-ups to the 10-win 2012 season.
Having back-to-back bowl seasons would be very significant, considering the Wildcats haven’t done that since 2011-2012. They also haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 2009-2010. To complete the comeback from disaster to solid season would say something about the direction Fitzgerald is taking this program. Even if this isn’t the dream season, it would show considerable progress if the Wildcats head into postseason play with a guaranteed winning season.
Finally, there are things to watch for from an individual standpoint during Northwestern’s attempt to win out, especially the continued progression of Clayton Thorson. Was his impressive October just a hot streak against some not-so-good opponents (read: Michigan State)? Or is he on his way to becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the conference at the conclusion of his sophomore season? Then there’s Justin Jackson, who is coming off consecutive duds but could still climb into second place on Northwestern’s all-time leading rushing list with an entire season left to chase Damien Anderson. Will Anthony Walker Jr. return to his 2015 self and, assuming he comes back, be one of the nation’s top linebackers in 2017? Can young cornerbacks Montre Hartage, Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo continue to progress and be a reason for optimism next season? There is still a lot that is yet to be determined.
Northwestern won’t win the West. In terms of win-loss records, this year won’t scream progress. But with three weeks remaining, Northwestern has a lot to prove and an opportunity to show that even better days are ahead.
When asked about looking ahead after the Wisconsin loss, Walker Jr. said simply “1-0 every week,” with a smirk on his face, knowing he’d taken a page from his coach’s book.
Kyle Queiro wasn’t having that. “3-0.”