Three weeks ago, everything seemed lost.
Northwestern sat at 2-3 on the season coming off an awful and boring 31-7 loss to Penn State. Even the seven is generous, as the starters were completely shut out. The Wildcats looked destined for yet another 6-6 season of mediocrity and complacency.
It was a season that began with high hopes and possible Big Ten Championship game aspirations and had quickly fallen off the tracks. Also known as your usual Northwestern football season.
However, that was three weeks ago. Today is a completely different story.
Somehow, someway, Northwestern is right where many of us thought it would be 8 games into the season. First, there was an easy victory in College Park as the offense caught fire against Maryland. Then came a low-scoring, somewhat lucky OT win over Iowa. Now a victory over a ranked Michigan State team in 3OT gives Northwestern a three game Big Ten winning streak for the third straight year.
As far as truly achieving an unbelievable season, that was unfortunately shut down by the schedule. Facing two top 10 teams in the first two games of Big Ten play wasn’t exactly the confidence boost this team needed, but they’ve managed to fight through.
“Give our guys credit I think they stayed the course, they’ve been working incredibly hard in practice, incredibly hard and they’re seeing the return on that investment,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think that gives you confidence that ‘the work I’m putting in, I’m getting the reward.’”
Northwestern is through the toughest part of its season and winning games again. The Wildcats aren’t beating up on nobodies either; Iowa and Michigan State have top-25 defenses and are a combined 11-3 against teams other than NU.
Heading into the final stretch of the season, Northwestern has a real shot to finish 9-3. The toughest game remaining on the schedule is next week at Nebraska and that’s simply because of it being on the road. The Cornhuskers are 4-4 on the season and just barely pulled out a victory against Purdue.
After that, the Wildcats host a rebuilding Purdue team who lost to Rutgers and a Minnesota team who has lost to all three teams Northwestern just beat. Then Northwestern travels down to Champaign for the LOLHat battle. Winning out is 100 percent in play.
The entire season can be encapsulated within Northwestern’s insane victory against Michigan State. Fall behind early before coming all the way back. Solid defense and a shaky offense for most of the game, before turning on the burners with a short field in OT.
“We just need to get in a better rhythm and I think this was a big game for us,” Clayton Thorson said. “Three Big Ten wins is tough to do against three really good teams. I think this is the win that we needed to catapult us into the rest of the season.”
If we’re using this Michigan St. game as a metaphor for the season, then these last four games have the makings of being the overtime periods. Michigan St. was the last dominant defense Northwestern will see this season and the Wildcats also proved that they can win without an effective running game. Re-establish Justin Jackson on the ground against softer run defenses and the offense should — in theory — keep rolling.
It will all come down to the offensive line, as it often does. If the big men can block like they did on Sunday and Mick McCall continues to call slants and crossing routes that let Thorson get the ball out early, this unit has a chance to start putting up points in regulation down the stretch.
The defense, on the other hand, has been spectacular as of late. It appears the Duke loss was simply an anomaly. They slowed down Wisconsin, completely shut down Penn State for a half, then played well against Maryland before stonewalling Iowa and Michigan St. Over the past two games, the defense has given up 13.5 points per game in regulation.
“I think we’re going to ride this momentum,” linebacker Nate Hall said. “And like you saw today, we’re just going to keep battling and take on every challenge that faces us.”
Northwestern has another great defense and they shouldn’t have too much trouble with the rest of the offenses they’re about to see. The Wildcats have salvaged the season, now they have a chance to make it a success.
The most important thing to remember is that it’s okay to be disappointed by not even competing for the Big Ten West title while also being excited by the prospects of a 9-win season. If the constant complaint is that the team can never capitalize on program momentum, then a third straight bowl game and a (possible) third 10 win season in 6 years would be a pretty good result.
Northwestern, after upsetting Michigan State, is firmly in position to accomplish that goal.