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The 10 biggest games of the Pat Fitzgerald era, ranked

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Of course, this Saturday makes the list.

Ohio State v Northwestern

The vibrant colors of fall have begun to decorate Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Pumpkins adorn neighborhood porches. It’s Week 9 of the college football season. And Pat Fitzgerald’s team is in first place in the Big Ten West.

If that sounds surprising, well, it’s because it is. It’s the first time Northwestern has held a share of the division lead this late in a season since 2000, a year in which Fitzgerald was the Linebacker and Special Teams coach at the University of Idaho.

Saturday’s game against Wisconsin will impact the trajectory of this season. The implications of the game have been spelled out. This is undeniably a big one; now can Northwestern finally win it?

That’s enough reason for us to rank the “biggest” games of the Pat Fitzgerald era.

Like any good ranking, this one needed some sort of point system. So we’ve established five categories. These five categories obviously hold different weight, but for the sake of these rankings they don’t. Each category is worth ten points and the allocation of points will be explained, but it will also be correct.

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  1. Big Ten implications: This one is pretty straightforward. How will the outcome of this game impact the Big Ten standings? Northwestern (and to a lesser extent, their opponents) still being in the hunt makes a huge difference in this category.
  2. Success of the season thus far: Self-explanatory, but how Northwestern had performed up until that point in the season. For this category, imagine you are looking at the team’s success from the perspective of the Friday before each game was played.
  3. National spotlight: Is the game primetime? Is it nationally televised? Is it a ranked matchup? This is the typical “big” game criteria.
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: The most ambiguous category. Combines the importance of opponents like Iowa or Wisconsin from a fan perspective with the importance of brand name opponents, while also factoring in the storylines surrounding the program (E.g: the two 5-7 seasons leading into 2015) and the general sentiment of the fanbase going into the game.
  5. Quality of the opponent: Factors in how good the opponent was before the game as well as how good they looked at the end of the season. Zero would be Northwestern’s opponent last week. Ten would be a CFB Playoff (or BCS) contender.

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Finally, keep in mind that these points were allocated for Northwestern. Another school would have a different context for a successful season, national spotlight, and even storyline, rivalry and feel. Only regular season games are included.

We realize writing an article like this comes with the responsibility of representing a fanbase unlike any other. Both of us grew up Northwestern fans in the Pat Fitzgerald era. Martin’s first memory at Ryan Field was getting autographs from Brett Basanez and Tim McGarigle at Meet the Team night. Noah’s was a gritty, rainy win over Io_a eight years ago (see honorable mentions). We’ve been through a lot with this football program, though not nearly as much as some of you have. That said, we feel well-equipped to provide the following list.

1. No. 16 Northwestern vs. No. 4 Ohio State (2013)

Outcome: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30

  1. Big Ten implications: 8
  2. Success of the season thus far: 10
  3. National spotlight: 10
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 9
  5. Quality of the opponent: 10

Total: 47

For one beautiful day, the eyes of the college football world turned to Evanston, Ill. In a clash of two undefeated teams, College GameDay — at Northwestern for the first time since 1995 — broadcast live from the Lakefill to 1.69 million viewers. Later that evening, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit called the game to a national audience of 7.36 million. The atmosphere at Ryan Field was nothing short of electric.

You know how the story played out. The Wildcats carried a 20-13 lead into the half and a 30-27 advantage with less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. But Carlos Hyde’s third touchdown of the game put the Buckeyes up 34-30 with 5:22 left. It was a devastating loss for a team that put everything they had into one game. It sucked the wind right out of Northwestern’s sails. The Wildcats went on to lose seven straight.

2. No. 13 Northwestern at No. 18 Michigan (2015)

Outcome: Michigan 38, Northwestern 0

  1. Big Ten implications: 8
  2. Success of the season thus far: 10
  3. National spotlight: 8
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 9
  5. Quality of the opponent: 8

Total: 43

This was, at the time, the highest Northwestern had been ranked in the Pat Fitzgerald era (the Wildcats got up to 12th before a bowl game we’d all rather forget). They were entering a crucial stretch, starting with a huge game against a Wolverines team that seemed to be having a bit of a down year, at least compared to the other powers of the newly formed Big Ten East. The game may have been played on Big Ten Network, but it was the only top-20 matchup of the week and got plenty of coverage and hype.

Northwestern fans were cautiously optimistic: after the season-opening win over Stanford (see below), the season had already exceeded expectations and the team looked prime to go even further. On the first play of the game, Jehu Chesson famously brought the kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown, and the Wolverines never looked back, demolishing the Wildcats in every phase en route to an embarrassing loss. But Northwestern had another chance to make a splash just a week later...

3. No. 20 Northwestern vs. No. 17 Iowa (2015)

Outcome: Iowa 40, Northwestern 10

  1. Big Ten implications: 10
  2. Success of the season thus far: 8
  3. National spotlight: 7
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 8
  5. Quality of the opponent: 9

Total: 42

Admittedly, this one felt a lot more important at the end of the season. After a huge letdown in Ann Arbor, the Hawkeyes came to Evanston expecting another classic dogfight. Fitzgerald was 5-4 against Kirk Ferentz going into this game and five of those had been decided by one possession. Three yards and a cloud of dust quickly turned into a fusillade of Akrum Wadley. The Hawkeyes’ running back gashed Northwestern for 204 yards and four touchdowns, decisively dropping the Wildcats to 1-2 in the Big Ten.

Northwestern displayed incredible resilience, rattling off five consecutive conference wins to finish second in the Big Ten West, right behind an 8-0 Iowa team. If Northwestern beat Iowa, both teams finish 7-1 in Big Ten play and it would have been Northwestern getting the tiebreaker and going to Indianapolis to play Michigan State.

4. Northwestern vs. No. 20 Wisconsin (2018)

Outcome: TBD

  1. Big Ten implications: 9
  2. Success of the season thus far: 6
  3. National spotlight: 6
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 8
  5. Quality of the opponent: 8

Total: 37

T5. No. 24 Northwestern at No. 11 Ohio State (2008)

Outcome: Ohio State 45, Northwestern 10

  1. Big Ten implications: 7
  2. Success of the season thus far: 7
  3. National spotlight: 6
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 7
  5. Quality of the opponent: 9

Total: 36

After a home loss to Michigan State (which may or may not pop up later) and a bad road loss to an Indiana team that didn’t win another game in Big Ten play that year, it looked like the Wildcats were out of the Big Ten picture and destined for a mid-tier bowl. But a good win over then 20th-ranked Minnesota open the door back up a crack, and a win over Ohio State would have vaulted the Wildcats ahead of the Buckeyes into third, behind two teams, in the Spartans and Nittany Lions, who still had to play each other.

Outside of the convoluted conference picture, the game served as a chance for a good Northwestern team to take a crack at an Ohio State team, reeling from a crucial Penn State loss, who ended up making the Fiesta Bowl. Any win over the Buckeyes would have catapulted the Wildcats forward nationally, and for a team who was starting to make headway into the rankings, it was a huge opportunity. But Terrelle Pryor (pre-scandal) and Beanie Wells rolled, with the former only needing to attempt 14 passes to rack up three touchdowns and the latter rumbling for 140 yards and a pair of scores. Mike Kafka, inserted for an injured CJ Bacher, toted the ball a whopping 29 times in addition to 27 pass attempts, but Northwestern had no answer for the Buckeyes.

T5. Northwestern at No. 6 Ohio State (2016)

Outcome: Ohio State 24, Northwestern 20

  1. Big Ten implications: 7
  2. Success of the season thus far: 5
  3. National spotlight: 6
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 8
  5. Quality of the opponent: 10

Total: 36

The biggest game of Northwestern’s inscrutable 2016 season was in Columbus. After starting the season with losses to Western Michigan and ISU (that’s Iowa State, right?), the Wildcats rattled off three consecutive wins against Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana to set up a battle against an eventual CFB Playoff semifinalist at Ohio Stadium.

The Wildcats, who closed as 26 point dogs, put up a fight. A touchdown pass from Thorson to Garrett Dickerson early in the third quarter tied the score at 17. Ohio State re-took the lead in the fourth quarter with a touchdown, but Northwestern was forced to settle for a Jack Mitchell field goal with 3:31left to draw within four. They never touched the ball again. The Wildcats had held the Buckeye rushing game in check all day, but JT Barrett broke through for a 35-yard gain to all but seal it. Austin Carr was at the height of his powers for the Wildcats in defeat, snagging eight passes for 158 yards, but the resurgent Big Ten hopes among Northwestern faithful were all but snuffed out.

7. No. 24 Northwestern at Penn State (2012)

Outcome: Penn State 39, Northwestern 28

  1. Big Ten implications: 5
  2. Success of the season thus far: 9
  3. National spotlight: 6
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 9
  5. Quality of the opponent: 6

Total: 35

This is one we really wanted. Not only was Northwestern undefeated after a relatively tough non-conference slate (Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College), but Penn State was scandal ridden in Bill O’Brien’s first season as head coach. There wasn’t a team the rest of the country was rooting against more. Factor in the history between the two programs — the Nittany Lions had won the last five matchups — and this game carried a little more magnitude.

Venric Mark’s 75-yard punt return put Northwestern up 28-17 late in the third quarter. Penn State responded with 22 unanswered points in the fourth to hand the Wildcats’ their first loss of the season. It was an unmitigated collapse.

8. Northwestern vs. No. 21 Stanford (2015)

Outcome: Northwestern 16, Stanford 6

  1. Big Ten implications: 0
  2. Success of the season thus far: 5
  3. National spotlight: 7
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 9
  5. Quality of the opponent: 10

Total: 31

It’s easy to forget now, but entering the 2015 season Pat Fitzgerald was legitimately on the hot seat. Northwestern was coming off of back-to-back seasons in which they failed to reach the six wins needed for bowl eligibility for the first time since 2002. There were questions abound at the quarterback position, where it appeared redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson had narrowly won a tough preseason battle for the job. This was a huge game, despite its lack of Big Ten implications, to kick off a program-defining season.

Stanford, meanwhile, looked underrated at No. 21. They were coming off of a down 2014, but had won back-to-back Pac 12 championships before that and featured a legitimate NFL prospect at quarterback in senior Kevin Hogan and an emerging sophomore running back named Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey had his worst game of a season in which he was a Heisman finalist with 89 yards from scrimmage on 17 touches, Hogan threw for 155 yards and a crucial pick, and Thorson avoided mistakes as the defense led Northwestern to a comprehensive win. The Cardinal bounced back, going on to win the Rose Bowl, but were likely held out of the playoff in part from this loss.

9. Northwestern vs. No. 23 Michigan State (2008)

Outcome: Michigan State 37, Northwestern 20

  1. Big Ten implications: 5
  2. Success of the season thus far: 8
  3. National spotlight: 5
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 5
  5. Quality of the opponent: 7

Total: 30

Northwestern may have entered this game unranked, but at 5-0, they were already clearly the best team of the nascent Pat Fitzgerald era. After road wins against bad Syracuse and Duke teams to start the season, the Wildcats took care of Southern Illinois and Ohio before knocking off a solid Iowa team at Kinnick. Michigan State looked to be on Iowa’s level, and with expectations starting to build, a win here could have transformed the season, even though the game didn’t get a lot of national buzz.

Brian Hoyer and the Spartans jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and Tyrell Sutton’s 139 yards on the ground along with CJ Bacher’s 61 pass attempts weren’t enough to overcome the latter’s two interceptions. Fans were still optimistic about Northwestern’s season, but this was a tough blow nonetheless.

10. Northwestern vs. No. 16 Wisconsin (2009)

Outcome: Northwestern 33, Wisconsin 31

  1. Big Ten implications: 2
  2. Success of the season thus far: 7
  3. National spotlight: 3
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 8
  5. Quality of the opponent: 8

Total: 28

Two weeks removed from upsetting No. 4 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, Northwestern was 7-4 (4-3 Big Ten) and hosting Wisconsin in the final game of the regular season. A trip to the Rose Bowl wasn’t necessarily on the line, but the Wildcats were looking to end 2009 on a three-game win streak, two of which would be over ranked opponents.

Northwestern held 1500-yard rusher John Clay to 4.3 yards per carry and Jordan Mabin intercepted Scott Tolzien in the game’s final drive to seal the upset and a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten.

Honorable mentions

Northwestern vs. Iowa (2009, 2010) - These could have been interchanged with No. 10.

Northwestern vs. Wisconsin (2015, 2017)

Northwestern vs. Nebraska (2011)

*Note: Upcoming games against Notre Dame and Iowa may find a way onto this list.