EAST LANSING, Mich. — Northwestern’s season seemed to be unraveling coming out of its Week Four bye. The team had just lost to Akron, and Jeremy Larkin’s medical retirement figured to cripple an offense that had struggled mightily in three straight second halves to open the season.
Two weeks later, it’s clear Northwestern, though not without flaws, is still together and still resilient.
In two straight weeks, against two ranked teams in Michigan and Michigan State, Northwestern has, for the most part, played well. Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats put together their most complete performance of the year in a 29-19 upset win.
On its face, the stinging nature of the blown lead and second half offensive incompetence in the 20-17 loss to Michigan clouded the fact that Northwestern hung with a really good team for large stretches. There are no moral victories, and yes, Michigan had a postgame win expectancy of over 80 percent, but NU was in that game, which is important.
Saturday in East Lansing, Pat Fitzgerald’s team took another step forward, this time responding when adversity hit in the second half.
“For us to be resilient down the stretch,” Fitzgerald said after the game, “I think it’s starting to show a bit of our maturity growing and our character always being the backbone of who we are. We lost a bit of our momentum there in the third quarter, but were able to seize it back.”
Whereas the defense had carried Northwestern for most of the season before Saturday, both units pulled their weight against the Spartans. The offense, which hadn’t scored in three of four second halves on the season, engineered a key third quarter drive to regain the lead and retake momentum after MSU had scored 14 straight to start the second half.
“It’s been pretty clear that once we’ve gone on a run, we’ve struggled to put points up after that,” Tommy Doles said. “So for us to take that next step, get over that hurdle, just for us to know we’re still in this fight, that meant a lot to us.”
In the fourth quarter, when the offense had several drives stall, the defense cranked up the pressure on Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, and stood tall on a critical fourth-and-one stop at the MSU 11 yard line with four minutes left to play.
And, with starters Nate Hall and Greg Newsome II out, and Montre Hartage sidelined for a stretch in the second half, Northwestern’s depth came through. Cam Ruiz filled in admirably at corner once Hartage exited, and sophomore linebacker Chris Bergin, a walk-on making his first career start, stepped up with eight tackles against the school his father played for in the 1980s.
“It was probably the most fun moment I’ve had in my life without a doubt,” Bergin said. “Growing up here and growing up in this stadium, was always a die-hard State fan and I never got a chance to really talk to them in the recruiting process and it felt great to be out there.”
Hall and Newsome will probably need to come back healthy for Northwestern to have a real shot to make any semblance of noise in the Big Ten West, but beating either Michigan or Michigan State was imperative to keep NU in the hunt. If the Wildcats play the way they did Saturday the next two weeks against Rutgers and Nebraska, they should win both. That would leave Northwestern 4-1 in the Big Ten with a home game against division favorite Wisconsin, in a game that would have major implications in deciding the West’s representative in Indianapolis.
At this stage, that’s still a long way away. But, after beating Michigan State, it’s possible. And more importantly, after the way Northwestern played against both Michigan and Michigan State, it’s likely.
Winning doesn’t solve all problems, but it helps. Northwestern is a more confident team than it was two weeks ago, and new players are starting to get more comfortable in their roles.
Northwestern is a team with a defense good enough to keep it in every game. It has a veteran quarterback who has seen opposing defenses before and who looks healthier and more confident by the week. It has its biggest remaining game at home. NU probably won’t win the West, but crazier things have happened. Moreover, the path to bowl eligibility now looks much better than it did before.
But, for now, those things can wait. NU enjoyed a happy bus ride home from East Lansing.
“It’s great to get the losing taste out of your mouth,” Joe Gaziano said. “All of our goals are ahead of us.”