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Northwestern once again takes care of business against Illinois, setting up clash with Ohio State

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Regardless of the circumstances, Pat Fitzgerald’s crew has gotten the job done repeatedly against its in-state rival over the past 4 years.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern
Nov 26, 2016; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats wide receiver Andrew Scanlan (82) lifts the Land of Lincoln Trophy after defeating the Illinois Fighting Illini at Ryan Field. The Northwestern Wildcats won 42-21. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

College football rivalry week is riddled with streaks. Every year, some of them end, and others begin in their place. Notably, Minnesota took down Wisconsin yesterday for the first time in 14 tries, and Florida ended a four game skid against their in-state rivals.

And, a snapshot of the national landscape can be found within these streaks. Clemson and Alabama, rulers of the roost right now, each blew out their oldest rival for the fourth consecutive time last night. As Northwestern fans are well aware, yesterday night marked the program’s second such streak against their own nominal rival.

These three schools share more than just streaks, though. Alongside Oklahoma (who took down relatively new opponent West Virginia for the seventh time in as many years), the Wildcats, Crimson Tide, and Tigers are the only Power 5 teams to have taken 15 of their last 16 conference games. Dynastic Alabama, recent champion Clemson, and perennial contender Oklahoma are in vastly different places than upstart Northwestern, but each has taken care of business the same way over the past two years.

“Obviously it’s outstanding to have beaten our rivals for four years in a row,” said Pat Fitzgerald. And Northwestern did win, though it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it hasn’t been pretty too often this year. As Teddy Greenstein points out, Northwestern has struggled this season, at least against the spread, when favored:

At the same time, the Wildcats are undefeated in Big Ten West play this season. Since conference play started, they’ve gotten the wins they needed, though just about all of them were ugly. The past three seasons before this one may not have ended the way this year did, but Northwestern took care of business when they needed to in those seasons as well.

Looking past blowout losses to obviously better teams, Northwestern went 9-0 in Clayton Thorson’s freshman year against unranked teams (notwithstanding a surprising win over #3 Stanford), including six important victories in conference play.

The season after that, with Thorson and Jackson partnered in the backfield full time, the Wildcats struggled out of the gates in what has become somewhat of a theme. But facing a 1-3 record, the Wildcats clawed their way to bowl eligibility by beating five out of the last six non-top 10 teams they faced (let’s not talk about Minnesota).

And just last year, after early losses to Wisconsin and Penn State seemed to doom the season once more, Northwestern reeled off seven straight conference wins, with three victories coming in overtime, to create a second ten win season in three years.

Once more, Pat Fitzgerald has found a way to make it happen down the stretch. Critique his late-game decision-making against Illinois (I wouldn’t disagree with you), call him lucky, belittle Northwestern’s competition. But the Wildcats, though largely outside of the national conversation, have gotten it done for four straight seasons in the midst of probably the best stretch in program history.

The team in the middle of the state may be hapless, but rivalry games take on a new meaning regardless of their context. Just ask a 2014 Northwestern team that was fighting for bowl eligibility. The fact is, like the storied programs I mentioned above, Northwestern got the job done on rivalry week again.

Illinois-Northwestern is no Iron Bowl, and the team isn’t playing for a shot at the playoff. But taking an all-inclusive look at the latest stretch of Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern tenure shows that the Big Ten Championship game appearance next week will be no fluke.

“Every year our goal is to win the Big Ten West, and we’ve gotten over that hum. And now we’ve got an opportunity, obviously, to take the team to the Rose Bowl, and if that doesn’t motivate you then I don’t know what does,” Fitzgerald said yesterday. Their opponent next week, by the way, has dominated a rival of their own recently.

Northwestern will be an underdog against the Buckeyes. A big one, even with the weaknesses of this year’s iteration. And don’t get me wrong, this team has deficiencies, from the coaching staff on down. Ohio State is more talented, has a more well-known coach, and has the big-game experience Northwestern doesn’t.

But with the results the Wildcats have put up over the last four years, you’d be a fool to count them out.