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Northwestern’s last 15 Big Ten Wins, ranked

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From Drew Luckenbaugh’s game-winning kick to a shirtless Mick McCall in Minneapolis, this impressive conference winning streak has produced some unforgettable moments.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

What do Alabama, Clemson and Northwestern all have in common?

They all boast a 15-1 record in their last 16 respective conference games.

Northwestern’s consistency in conference play over the past two seasons is nothing short of spectacular. Sure, not all of the victories have been pretty, but they’ve produced some epic moments that highlight this team’s rollercoaster journey to Indianapolis.

Here are those 15 wins, ranked.


Here are the six criteria we used to evaluate each win. Each criterion received a 1-10 rating.

1. Conference Implications

How important was the win towards Northwestern winning the Big Ten West?

2. Quality of Opponent

Seems straightforward enough.

3. Excitement Level

Big plays. Overtime. Controversy. How fun was the game to watch as a fan?

4. Storyline, rivalry and feel

An electric road environment against a long-time conference foe or an 11 a.m. kickoff in Piscataway?

5. How well NU actually played

Did the Wildcats squeak out a win against Rutger or produce a dominant team performance?


15. Vs. Purdue (2017)

Final Score: Northwestern 23, Purdue 13

  1. Conference implications: 2
  2. Quality of Opponent: 3
  3. Excitement Level: 3
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 3
  5. How well NU actually played: 5

Total: 16

Charlie Kuhbander went 3-for-3 on field goals. Northwestern won their fifth straight conference game in unspectacular fashion after winning three overtime games in a row. That’s about all there was in this one.

14. At Minnesota (2018)

Final Score: Northwestern 24, Minnesota 14

  1. Conference implications: 1
  2. Quality of Opponent: 3
  3. Excitement Level: 4
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 3
  5. How well NU actually played: 5

Total: 16

Shirtless Mick McCall gives this one the tiebreaker over 2017 Purdue.

13. Vs. Minnesota (2017)

Final Score: Northwestern 39, Minnesota 0

  1. Conference implications: 1
  2. Quality of Opponent: 2
  3. Excitement Level: 1
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 3
  5. How well NU actually played: 10

Total: 17

The Wildcats defense came to play in what was one of the coldest, windiest and rainy games in recent memory at Ryan Field. Minnesota completed two passes all game and threw three interceptions. Northwestern had TEN different players carry the ball with Justin Jackson leading the way with 166 yards.

12. Vs. Illinois (2018)

Final Score: Northwestern 24, Illinois 16

  1. Conference implications: 1
  2. Quality of Opponent: 1
  3. Excitement Level: 4
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 6
  5. How well NU actually played: 5

Total: 17 + HAT

Besides a fourth-straight hat for Northwestern’s seniors, we all know this one wasn’t too pretty.

11. At Rutger (2018)

Final Score: Northwestern 18, Rutger 15

  1. Conference implications: 5
  2. Quality of Opponent: 3
  3. Excitement Level: 4
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 3
  5. How well NU actually played: 5

Total: 20

Credit the defense and Isaiah Bowser for showing up to play on a day where Clayton Thorson couldn’t connect on any of his passes. Say what you will about the quality of the win, this victory was essential in setting up the season-defining matchup against Wisconsin the following week.

10. At Maryland (2017)

Final Score: Northwestern 37, Maryland 21

  1. Conference implications: 2
  2. Quality of Opponent: 4
  3. Excitement Level: 3
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 4
  5. How well NU actually played: 8

Total: 21

After back-to-back conference losses to start the season, this convincing win in College Park would be the first of seven straight conference wins for the Wildcats to finish out the season.

Justin Jackson’s 171 yards proved to be the highest mark of his senior season and who doesn’t love a non-QB-sneak Clayton Thorson rushing touchdown?

Plus, this was the day Jackson set the school rushing record.

9. At Illinois (2017)

Final Score: Northwestern 42, Lovie Smith 7

  1. Conference implications: 2
  2. Quality of Opponent: 3
  3. Excitement Level: 4
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 5
  5. How well NU actually played: 10

Total: 22 + HAT

An Illinois player chucking a flag back at the refs’ face was the most memorable moment from Northwestern’s third-straight HAT win.

8. At Nebraska (2017)

Final Score: Northwestern 31, Nebraska 24 (OT)

  1. Conference implications: 4
  2. Quality of Opponent: 5
  3. Excitement Level: 9
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 8
  5. How well NU actually played: 7

Total: 33

The 2017 contest against the Huskers marked Northwestern’s third-straight overtime victory of the season and guaranteed the Wildcats would be going bowling for a third year in a row. Clayton Thorson was able to overcome two interceptions by running it in for two scores and senior wide receiver Macan Wilson posted his only 100+ yard game in a purple uniform.

Winning in Lincoln is always a good time.

7. Vs. Iowa (2017)

Final Score: Northwestern 17, Iowa 10 (OT)

  1. Conference implications: 5
  2. Quality of Opponent: 6
  3. Excitement Level: 9
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 7
  5. How well NU actually played: 8

Total: 35

Northwestern punter Hunter Niswander dropped an 80-yard bomb. Noah Fant dropped a pass in overtime. The Wildcats improved to 4-3.

6. At No. 20 Michigan State (2018)

Final Score: Northwestern 29, Michigan State 19

  1. Conference implications: 7
  2. Quality of Opponent: 5
  3. Excitement Level: 8
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 7
  5. How well NU actually played: 9

Total: 36

This road upset would come to epitomize the resilient Wildcat team we saw in the final months of the 2018 regular season. With the team combining to rush for just eight total yards, Thorson rose to the occasion when this team needed him most and threw for 373 yards to wheel the Wildcats to a crucial Big Ten victory. Northwestern owns Michigan State.

5. At Purdue (2018)

Final Score: Northwestern 31, Purdue 27

  1. Conference implications: 9
  2. Quality of Opponent: 5
  3. Excitement Level: 8
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 8
  5. How well NU actually played: 7

Total: 37

Although we didn’t have known it at the time, this primetime matchup to kickoff the season would turn out to be one of the West division’s most pivotal games. Despite scoring zero points in the second half, Jeremy Larkin and a sturdy Northwestern defense would do just enough to secure a hard-fought road win in West Lafayette.

4. Vs. Nebraska (2018)

Final Score: Northwestern 34, Nebraska 31 (OT)

  1. Conference implications: 6
  2. Quality of Opponent: 4
  3. Excitement Level: 10
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 10
  5. How well NU actually played: 7

Total: 37

A 99-yard drive in under two minutes to force overtime. 220 yards for Flynn Nagel. 455 passing yards for No. 18. Drew Luckenbaugh. Devine Ozigbo shredding the Northwestern run defense for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Nebraska going 0-6.

This game confirmed there was something special about this Northwestern team.

3. Vs. No. 20 Wisconsin (2018)

Final Score: Northwestern 31, Wisconsin 17

  1. Conference implications: 10
  2. Quality of Opponent: 6
  3. Excitement Level: 4
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 10
  5. How well NU actually played: 9

Total: 39

Isaiah Bowser — 34 carries, 117 yards, one touchdown

Jonathan Taylor — 11 carries, 46 yards, two fumbles, a ruined Heisman campaign

The Wildcats officially took control of the west.

2. Vs. No. 16 Michigan State (2017)

Final Score: Northwestern 39, Michigan State 31 (3OT)

  1. Conference implications: 5
  2. Quality of Opponent: 9
  3. Excitement Level: 10
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 9
  5. How well NU actually played: 10

Total: 43

So what if the Wildcats let Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke throw for 445 yards? Nate Hall left the game in the first half to get 30 stitches in his hand and then picked off Lewerke to win the game in triple overtime.

1. At No. 21 Iowa (2018)

Final Score: Northwestern 14, Iowa 10

  1. Conference implications: 10
  2. Quality of Opponent: 7
  3. Excitement Level: 10
  4. Storyline, rivalry and feel: 10
  5. How well NU actually played: 8

Total: 45

We’ll just leave this here:

Disagree? Post your own rankings in the comments and tell us why!