On November 11, I stood in the freezing cold with a group of friends as Northwestern put away Purdue. Most of the students had left by this point. After all, it was, well, very cold, it was family weekend, and it wasn’t the most exciting game in the history of college football.
Even as the once-occupied rows of bleachers in front of us in the student section turned empty, even as the brutal cold winds whipped around, and even as most of the fans had exited, leaving Ryan Field an eerie quiet scene under the lights, we stood in our spots and took in Northwestern’s fifth win in a row, a no-nonsense 23-13 victory.
In the three years I’ve covered this team in some role, I’ve criticized it plenty. Two years ago it had no offense and its three losses came by a combined score of 123-16. It started 0-2 last year. It got pounded by Duke and was out of the Big Ten West race by the second week of the Big Ten portion of its schedule this year. There have been plenty of reasons to be upset, even during the most successful three-year stretch in Northwestern football history.
But on that Saturday night, in front of a half-full Ryan Field, Northwestern dominated Purdue for the fourth time in four years. It was the Wildcats’ fifth win in a row.
Even in the ugly conditions and sometimes even uglier football, with that being the final game I’d go to at Ryan Field as a student, there was something beautiful about that.
One last time as a student. Forever a wildcat. pic.twitter.com/qmbjJ1Lf7M— Zach Pereles (@zach_pereles) November 12, 2017
Flash back a few hours earlier, when I was tailgating for the Purdue game with that same group of friends as well as a few of their parents. One of the parents was a 1990 grad. He saw Northwestern win six games in his four years here. Six! In four years! Could you imagine if that happened now?
Northwestern has won 26 games over the past three seasons. Only 15 Power Five teams — and just four Big Ten teams — have won more. That’s pretty darn impressive. You can make the argument that the Big Ten West has been weak. That’s true. You can make the argument that only one team, Michigan, has won more games without a conference championship appearance. That’s also true (and, frankly, pretty incredible). There are shortcomings that make this success bittersweet, none more so than this year, a year that guaranteed outstanding players like Justin Jackson, Godwin Igwebuike, Tyler Lancaster and Kyle Queiro and several others will never win the Big Ten, much less the Big Ten West.
If you’ve gone back and forth on whether you should be happy about where this program is, you’re just like me. There’s a significant part of me that could very easily write about how Northwestern’s failure in key areas; about how the coaching staff might be complacent given its job stability; about how Northwestern will win between six and nine or ten games for years to come; about how unless something drastic happens, Northwestern won’t win the Big Ten West; and maybe even about how there may never be a run better than this and even this run wasn’t enough to get to Indianapolis.
But Northwestern isn’t Purdue or Rutgers or Illinois or Maryland. Or even Minnesota or Nebraska. (If you’re a longtime fan, did you ever think that Northwestern would be definitively better than Nebraska for a sustained period of time?) Heck, Northwestern even swept Michigan State AND Iowa the last two years for good measure.
When I stepped back and looked at this program from a fan’s perspective this year, rather than from an analyst’s perspective, I realized how impressive it was to watch Northwestern simply put away teams like Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois while also finding ways to beat teams like Iowa and Michigan State. Again, say what you want about the Big Ten West, but Northwestern was a darn good football team this year, and it’s been a very solid — and at times, very good — program over the past three seasons. Given the program’s centurylong stretches of complete historical ineptitude and the opposition it faces not only on the field but on the recruiting trail, what Pat Fitzgerald and his players have done the past three years is remarkable.
A second thing I’ve come to realize — partially as a fan but also as fellow student — is that it’s tough to be consistent. Take last year, when Northwestern lost to Western Michigan and Illinois St. to start the year and I examined who deserved the blame the most, from the offense to the defense to Fitzgerald himself. Northwestern still managed to rally following a rocky 1-3 start and became one of the more fun teams to watch. The Wildcats hung 38 in Iowa City and 54 in East Lansing, had Ohio State faithful booing their own team in Columbus and beat one of the nation’s better teams at Yankee Stadium. Was it perfect? No. Far from it. But it was admirable how the players and coaches responded and finished. The same goes for this year. Following a dreary loss to Penn State, I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing this article. But the Wildcats finished strong again. Seeing Northwestern ranked in the CFP Poll for the past few weeks might be humorous or not really that meaningful to some. To me, it’s really cool that Northwestern is considered a Top-25 program and has been twice in the past three years.
So you can have your reservations about this team’s inability to put itself in position to play late season games with Big Ten championship implications. You can have your qualms with Mick McCall and Adam Cushing and other much-maligned coaches and even Fitzgerald himself. I can’t say for sure that Northwestern wouldn’t be better off with a shuffling of the coaching staff. Those men, like Northwestern, aren’t perfect. And you can lament the fact that a ton of talent came through this program and never made it to Indianapolis. I have some of those reservations myself.
But also step back take time to realize what Northwestern has done and has become the past three years. Too often we focus on what could be rather than appreciate what is. When Northwestern gets selected for a middle- or upper-middle tier bowl for the third year in a row, take pride in that. And take pride in a program that has established itself nationally as one that produces solid — and sometimes very good — football teams. That alone is worth celebrating.