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Northwestern’s win over Illinois wraps up bittersweet regular season in matter-of-fact fashion

The Wildcats didn’t achieve the ultimate goal of reaching Indianapolis, but a seven-game win streak provided fun moments and tangible improvement to build off of.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, IL — In a commanding, businesslike romp over Illinois, the 2017 Northwestern Wildcats offered yet another example of how far they’ve come and closed out a 9-3 regular season that was both impressive and unfulfilling.

Northwestern went down 7-0 early but responded with 42 unanswered points against the outmatched Illini, extending its winning streak to seven games and keeping the always-important Land of Lincoln (HAT) trophy in Evanston for the third straight year.

But despite the elation of dominating their in-state rivals, despite not having lost in nearly two months, there was a bittersweet element to the final game of this regular season. Even though winning seven straight games was the best possible way to turn around a 2-3 season, it wasn’t enough to make up for those September struggles.

“It’s great to be state champs, it’s great to own the Land of Lincoln for another 364 days, but the destination we want to be at is Indianapolis, and I’m really disappointed that we’re not there,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “For our seniors and our fans. But I tip my hat to the Badgers. Obviously we lost the Big Ten (West) championship that day when we were in Madison and we had a lead.”

It’s cruel to know that Northwestern’s primary goal for this season, winning the division, was taken away just four games into the year in the Big Ten opener. But it’s the truth. A 10-7 halftime lead for the Wildcats in that game on September 30th quickly turned into a 31-10 deficit and a 33-24 loss, and the machine-like Badgers will take their undefeated season to Indianapolis this weekend.

As Northwestern has rattled off win over win, looking nothing like the team that was blasted by Duke and far from the team that lost to Wisconsin and Penn State, fans and players alike are left to ponder unanswerable questions. What if NU’s offense showed up in the third quarter in Madison? More importantly, what would happen if these two teams, clearly the West’s best, met each other NOW?

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they’ll never know. Every game in the season counts, and for a second consecutive year, slow starts and an inability to beat top-tier Big Ten teams capped Northwestern’s ceiling.

“Obviously I’ve got to do a better job with the start of the season, and I will,” Fitzgerald said. “I definitely will.”

Northwestern’s 42-7 victory on Saturday was a perfect representation of the season’s past few weeks: methodical and unremarkable.

After the thrilling stretch of three consecutive overtime victories, the last three games have almost felt like foregone conclusions. Northwestern is, quite simply, better than Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, and in the case of the latter two, significantly better.

That’s not a bad thing by any means. In fact, it’s extremely good. Any fan over 40 can easily recall the days (okay, decades) when Northwestern occupied the cellar of the Big Ten. Fitzgerald has now led the team to three 9-win regular seasons in six years. The Wildcats have posted three consecutive winning records in conference play for the first time since 1939-1941.

But still, the past few Saturdays have felt lifeless. There’s been no drama or fanfare. The first game played after Northwestern entered the CFP Rankings was a night game under the lights at Ryan Field against Purdue. The crowd was decent, but hardly any students showed up. Those that did watched the Wildcats and their stout defense get out to a 20-0 lead and coast to a victory that was never in question. A week later, virtually no fans of any kind braved the Evanston elements to see Northwestern overwhelm and shut out a young, inexperienced Minnesota team.

Student attendance has long been a problem at Northwestern, and it’s a topic that could easily be expanded upon on another day, but the specific lack of interest to this November wasn’t surprising. Consider that three-quarters of the current student body has only ever known its school as a winning Big Ten program (seniors remember 2014). To them, this is just a typical Northwestern season that lost its chance at being anything more than that a long time ago.

That sentiment is understandable. Northwestern has firmly settled into a niche in the middle of the top half of the conference. Led by Justin Jackson and good defense, it generally beats the teams it should. Limited by an under-performing offense, it comes up short in big games and drops a weird one or two. That makes for the most consistent, sustained run of success the program has ever seen, but it also becomes frustratingly routine to many, especially those old enough to remember the excitement of 1995.

The 2017 regular season quietly wrapped up with a blowout that was much like the one over the Gophers that preceded it, a similar type of game in a similar environment at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium. Even when the moribund Illini took a 7-0 lead, there was never a doubt that Northwestern would win big. The only thing that made this game different was the presence of a rivalry and a trophy. But even though it wasn’t terribly exciting and didn’t mean much from a national perspective, it was a game that mattered greatly to the players, coaches, and everyone on Northwestern’s sideline.

“The Land of Lincoln trophy means a lot to our program,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s the biggest game of the year for us. For us to come down here and have a dominant performance was a great exclamation point to a terrific senior class.”

Jackson went out in style in his last Big Ten game, racking up 144 yards on 18 carries, including a career-long 79-yard dash and his program-record 39th touchdown run. He jumped past names like Montee Ball, Herschel Walker, and LaDainian Tomlinson on the NCAA rushing leaderboard.

“He’s going to go down in the history of Northwestern football as the best running back of all time,” Fitzgerald said.

The defense couldn’t pitch another shutout, but held Illinois to 3.7 yards per play, forced 9 punts, and scored a defensive touchdown for the first time since Nick Van Hoose’s pick-six against Nebraska in October 2015. Continuing a tradition that started with Bo Cisek, Tyler Lancaster even got a couple carries against the Illini.

It was a lot of fun. Winning games, especially against Illinois, is fun. But because of what happened early in the season, and the trajectories of the two teams, it wasn’t particularly stimulating.

Pat Fitzgerald is tired of hearing about the 41-17 loss to Duke. He’s tired of that game being the first thing any outside observer thinks of when they think about Northwestern. He’s tired of being disregarded because of it.

“The narrative of our football team has all been based on one game,” Fitzgerald said. “That was our difficult loss down at Duke when we were a little bit shorthanded and played a team that was really hot. I would prefer if that narrative gets changed. This is one of the hottest teams in the country, a team that’s dominated back to back weeks, and a team that I think has improved more than anybody else in the Big Ten, if not anybody else in the country.”

Over the past seven games, that improvement has become more and more apparent. The defense has continued to grow. Jackson has heated up. The receivers have come along. The offensive line has done a complete 180, production-wise.

According to Fitzgerald and his players, this seven-game win streak has been all about preparation.

“We didn’t have the results right away and we were disappointed about that,” Fitzgerald said. “But they went to work right away, and the response that we’ve had over the last few months is a direct reflection of the way they’ve prepared.”

“There were a lot of people taking shots at them, taking shots at our program, our coaching staff. I thought they answered that by shutting the noise off and doing the only thing you can under those circumstances, and that’s go to work. Chicago work ethic, roll your sleeves up and go to work. And that’s what they did. If we can do that more consistently, if I can coach them better to do that, then we can take the next step as a program.”

Northwestern fans are still waiting on the next step. And until it comes, the outside perception of Northwestern is unlikely to change. That’s not lost on the Wildcats’ head coach.

“We gotta win games, that’s the bottom line,” Fitzgerald said. “You wanna change the narrative, you gotta win games. It just is what it is. You lose a game shorthanded, we had opportunities to make some plays we didn’t early, and the team that beat us played really well, probably their best game of the season. And that game has been the narrative, even though we’ve gone on a 7-game win streak.”

Ultimately, the narrative isn’t really that important. What’s important is that Northwestern went 9-3, is a legitimate top-25 team, and has had its most successful three-year stretch in modern history.

It’s true that there is some frustration over another year passing without a West title. It’s true that the last few weeks have been an anticlimactic end to the season. But it’s also true that nine wins can’t be taken for granted. It’s also true that this was a heck of a fun roller-coaster ride, one that will culminate with a very respectable bowl game in San Diego, Nashville, or somewhere in Florida. It was a successful season.

“Our guys should’ve earned respect this year with the way that they’ve responded and the way that they’ve finished the year, and if not, we’ve got one more opportunity to go earn that nationally,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll get going on the offseason, move into a beautiful, brand new facility...there’s so much amazing momentum going on right now in our program, it’s ridiculous.”