About a month and a half ago, Northwestern’s back was against the wall.
Sitting at 1-3 and heading into what looked to be a brutal five-game gauntlet, the 2016 season was threatening to fall apart.
Then the Wildcats responded.
They rattled off three straight wins in often electrifying fashion before falling in close battles to two of the country’s 10 best teams. They put themselves in position for a division title, a position that seemed unfathomable just weeks earlier, before coming up short against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Now it’s time to look to the future. And because Northwestern couldn’t pull off an upset during these last two weeks, combined with the unavoidable reality of that 1-3 September, the Wildcats aren’t in the clear just yet.
“Our backs are against the wall again,” said senior defensive lineman C.J. Robbins on Monday. “We have three more games, we need at least two more wins to make a bowl.”
Robbins is correct. Northwestern is 4-5, meaning it needs to beat at least two of Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois to get back to the postseason. Despite no longer having a realistic shot at the Big Ten West title, there is still so much to play for this season. Purdue and Illinois seem like the most likely candidates for those two wins, considering they have combined for a 3-9 conference record.
Really, there’s no reason why Pat Fitzgerald and his team shouldn’t win all three.
Fitzgerald will never say it, but the Wildcats are better than all three of their remaining opponents, and in the case of the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini, significantly so. Even Minnesota, which sits at 7-2 on the season, is a team Northwestern should beat (but doesn’t necessarily need to). The Gophers have lost to both decent teams they’ve played this season and are still starting Mitch Leidner at quarterback.
For the Wildcats to take care of business and win out, it all comes down to responding like they did earlier this season. They need to be frustrated by this two-game losing streak and go hard in practice to prepare to take that frustration out on three lesser opponents.
That starts on defense. After creating five turnovers during the three-game winning streak, Northwestern forced zero in its last two losses.
“That sense of urgency needs to raise on the defensive side of the ball,” Robbins said. “Our effort needs to go up, our playmaking needs to go up and we need to create turnovers for the offense so we can get points on the board and just get the thing rolling.”
Offensively, there’s no reason why the Wildcats can’t get back to the level they played at in early October. Justin Jackson, held to 118 yards the last two weeks, should surpass that total with ease against a nonexistent Purdue defense. Clayton Thorson will also almost certainly start to find his rhythm again, hitting Austin Carr repeatedly and spreading the ball around to his other receivers.
The onus is on Fitzgerald and the rest of his coaching staff, as well as every contributing player on the roster, to take these next three games seriously and finish the season on a positive note.
If Northwestern can do that, it will return to the postseason. For a program that hasn’t played in consecutive bowl games since 2011-12, that’s about all you can ask for after such an atrocious start.
Especially if the Wildcats can go on to win a bowl game, getting the job done over these next three weeks would say a lot about the resiliency of this team and create a great deal of positive momentum heading into the 2017 season.
Failure to do so, on the other hand, would be a major disappointment.