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Northwestern is one of college football’s great success stories

There’s no shortage of feel-good stories for Northwestern. The coach is one such story, and a Big Ten West championship shows he has his program on the right path.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The worst game I ever covered as a student journalist was against Iowa in 2015. A week earlier, I woke up at an ungodly hour to head to Ann Arbor and watch Northwestern get destroyed by Michigan. There was still hope, though, after that game. Maybe Northwestern wasn’t the national powerhouse it looked like it might have been the first four weeks of the season, but hope sprung eternal in the race for the West Division crown.

Well, I should say “sprung until that fateful Saturday.”

Northwestern lost 40-10, and it wasn’t even that close. The students didn’t show up. Neither did the football team. It was just me and Josh Rosenblat mourning a blowout that was aired on national television, trying to figure out how we should frame the website’s content regarding the team going forward. Was it a team, led by a first-year quarterback, a phenomenal running back and a defense laden with NFL talent, that was developing into a top program? Or was it a program still reeling off back-to-back 5-7 seasons? We wondered if the direction of the program — especially the struggling offense — was the right one. We wondered if Northwestern could turn it around, or if it would collapse after a 4-0 start, just like it had two seasons before. We might have even wondered if body clocks cause teams to lose games.

(They don’t.)

But more than anything else, I remember doubting if Northwestern winning a West title was a reasonable goal every year. Pat Fitzgerald is a meticulous guy. He believes in the process. And the first step in his process for Northwestern football — as he repeated over and over — was win the West.

Win the West? Surely not. There’d always be Wisconsin or Iowa, or a former top program like Nebraska, or even a physical, scrappy bunch from Minnesota that would be better than Northwestern, I thought.

Northwestern — wearing its Rose Bowl throwbacks that day — couldn’t have been farther from even contending for Pasadena.

The first thing I’ve realized in my first year of full Northwestern alumnus fandom is this: If you don’t have a severe love-hate relationship with Northwestern football, you’re probably 1) smart for not investing too much, emotionally, in a bunch of 18-22-year-olds or 2) just used to it by now.

I am neither.

But I’m getting better, thanks to this season. Let me run you through Northwestern’s eight wins this season, and how I learned to love the team:

Northwestern 31, Purdue, 27: With Clayton Thorson much less than 100 percent — he didn’t even play on QB sneaks or kneel downs — Northwestern went into one of the best atmospheres West Lafayette’s produced in a long time and won on national TV. Sure, Northwestern didn’t score in the second half, but details are for losers. That’s five straight over Purdue, which has gone through three coaches in that span.

Northwestern 29, Michigan State 19: Northwestern — reeling from three straight losses — rushes for 10 yards in its second game without Jeremy Larkin. Insert Clayton Thorson, who throws for 373 yards and three scores. Thorson finishes his college career 3-0 against Michigan State, and if I had to imagine, not that many quarterbacks have ever done that. That’s three straight over Sparty, and the ship is righted.

Northwestern 34, Nebraska 31: Clayton Thorson sees his 373 yards from last week and scoffs. He throws for 455 yards and orchestrates a 98-yard touchdown drive to force overtime. Northwestern in overtime might as well be Alabama, and backup kicker Drew Luckenbaugh might as well be Adam Vinatieri. That’s two straight over the Cornhuskers, who won four of their final six to close the season following this game.

Northwestern 18, Rutgers 15: This is football at its finest. I definitely don’t have multiple panic attacks at brunch while streaming this game on my phone. Also, hello Isaiah Bowser.

Northwestern 31, Wisconsin 17: Ok, this is the big one. The stars have aligned, right? Wisconsin’s starting quarterback is out, Ryan Field at 11 a.m. is the toughest place to play in the nation, and the Wildcats have won four straight. Clayton Thorson throws three ugly picks but also has three total touchdowns, Jonathan Taylor wishes he could be Isaiah Bowser (117 and a touchdown), and Northwestern is in control of the West.

Northwestern 14, Iowa 10: Bennett Skowronek makes an incredible catch, I yell a little louder than what’s considered socially acceptable in a bar, and Northwestern is going to Indy. That’s three straight over Iowa.

Northwestern 24, Minnesota 14: If there’s ever a game that made me really appreciate Pat Fitzgerald, it’s this one. No one could be all too upset if this is a letdown game. A week after winning the West, Fitzgerald and his players ensure that isn’t the case. With much of its secondary injured, the front seven takes over defensively. Fitz is pissed at Minnesota being favored, and it shows. That’s two straight over Minnesota.

Northwestern 24, Illinois 16: Northwestern played a football game and won. That’s four straight over Illinois.

As that hasty rundown shows, this season really contained everything. It had an embattled quarterback make a remarkable comeback just to be on the field to open the season. It saw a three-game losing streak, only for said embattled quarterback to right the ship single-handedly one week and then lead an improbable comeback victory the next.

Then it saw that quarterback struggle, only for a true freshman running back — who suffered burns on his hands as a child, tore his ACL in high school and wasn’t even originally offered to play running back — save the day. (Seriously, read this story.)

Along the way, we’ve seen other storylines, too. Here are a few that I’ve noticed from afar:

  • Not to be outdone by Thorson, Nate Hall comes back from his own ACL tear to post three interceptions, tied for the team lead. If there’s a key defensive play to be made, he’s probably the one making it.
  • Montre Hartage had no Power Five offers until days before National Signing Day in 2015. Northwestern lost a commit, offered Hartage and flipped him from Georgia Southern on National Signing Day. He becomes one of the best cornerbacks in America.
  • Jordan Thompson, who gets almost no love, does his job of taking on multiple linemen every play about as well as anyone. There is no one who has worked harder and received less attention over the past four years.
  • A 5-foot-6, 180-pound (a very generous measurement) former video guy/walk-on Chad Hanaoka earns the No. 1 jersey and then converts the most important third-and-9 of the season on a draw play.
  • Flynn Nagel — who, not to be outdone by Hartage, flipped from Duke to Northwestern after Grant Perry flipped from Northwestern to Michigan — becomes one of the most reliable wide receivers in the nation.
  • All of those guys are seniors, the all-time winningest class in program history. From the non-seniors:
  • Did I mention Isaiah Bowser?
  • If he stays another year, Joe Gaziano — who has an incredible, if heartbreaking, story of his own — could break the Northwestern all-time sacks record.
  • Cameron Green embraces being a superback and adds a new dimension to the offense with his pass-catching ability. Bennett Skowronek makes Northwestern’s most important play this millennium.
  • If you really appreciate downhill linebacker play, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher is the tandem for you.
  • A much-maligned offensive line plays big in its biggest moments (166 rushing yards against Purdue, 184 against Wisconsin and 182 against Iowa).
  • Northwestern uses three players to make a combined eight field goals this season.

If these players — a combination of unsung heroes, underdogs, NFL prospects, success stories, unlikely contributors and comeback kids — didn’t make you love Northwestern football this season, I’m not sure sports are for you.

When Northwestern lost to Akron this season, the same feelings I had following that Iowa loss way back in 2015 kept back again. Sure, Northwestern had won two bowl games since then, but could the Wildcats really compete in the West?

It’s easy to define a team by its failures — a loss to Akron chief among them — and then find ways to discount successes. But it’s also unfair. If you’re going to define Northwestern football as a maddeningly inconsistent program when it loses to Akron, you’d better define it as one of the most resilient groups in the nation when it sweeps the Big Ten West that same season. I wrote something along those lines last season.

So here we sit, days out from Northwestern’s first Big Ten Championship appearance. Pat Fitzgerald has fulfilled the first part of his “Win the Big Ten West, win the Big Ten, win our bowl game” mantra for the first time, using a roster filled with veterans and youngsters alike. Whatever happens at Lucas Oil Stadium, Pat Fitzgerald’s program has taken a definitive step in the right direction.

There is no questioning that. Those questions that lingered after the worst game I ever covered are no more.

See you in Indy.