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Northwestern embraces its inner Akron and its identity, once again

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Terry Bowden showed us the path. Also, this is a misleading headline, don’t worry.

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NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A team with a commanding halftime lead completely implodes with awful turnovers. As the tide turns, a shocked atmosphere descends on a half-empty stadium. A seemingly improbable ejection becomes reality. The Northwestern Wildcats make a stunning comeback. The Akron Zips make a stunning comeback. Sorry Utah fans, we’ve been there before. We’ve all been there before. Your sports teams have bad halves. People have bad halves. Those bad stretches of time are mostly determined by chance. Yet after the bad stuff happens, it all seems preordained and inevitable. Napoleon always loses in Russia, Van Gogh always dies penniless, Akron always comes back, and on and on.

Perhaps Northwestern learned something about never giving up from now-fired Terry Bowden’s team that day. Maybe the Wildcats had some institutional memory of being written off three years in a row. Maybe Pat Fitzgerald really does know how to make the improbable ordinary. After the Akron loss, I wrote that Northwestern had thus far failed to build any coherent identity for its program with the talented group it had assembled. I was wrong. The Akron Loss and this Holiday Bowl win are Northwestern’s identity. The identity was there before I got here and I can confirm it will be here as long as Pat Fitzgerald stays. To me, it’s immortalized by the classic and clichéd quote from The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold,” Johnny says. This comes at the end of a book most people read in middle school. It’s one of the few good books you read in middle school, and Johnny’s call for Ponyboy to stay innocent and pure, refuting Robert Frost’s “nothing gold can stay” misanthropy, is the enduring line. Northwestern stays gold. By all accounts, it does things the right way in regard to NCAA rules. The team and its expanding national brand consistently prides itself on character and discipline. And now, with three straight bowl wins and a Big Ten West title, it is paying off.

This is doubtlessly obnoxious. It’s one thing for Army or an FCS school to trumpet itself as the beacon of all that is right with the world. It’s quite another thing for Northwestern, a major conference school with billionaire donors and privilege leaking out of every towering facade on Lake Michigan, to come down and relentlessly exude an aura of success. Northwestern stays gold because it has the institutional wealth and patience to do so. However, that should not take away from the athletes making it happen. They are exceptional. They sacrificed and gave their bodies to make all this possible. And for this senior class, the winningest senior class in Northwestern history, they made one final comeback to cement their place in our memories. That shouldn’t take away from the staff either, which clearly puts in the work for our enjoyment.

To me, the Holiday Bowl and this season is all about staying gold. All the off-field stuff, the nice facilities and doing things the right way mean nothing if you can’t win football games (hello, Mark Richt). And Northwestern went out and won that football game, just as Akron did before them. Like the Zips on that warm September night, Northwestern kept believing and swung the momentum in its favor.

“Momentum in football is a powerful thing,” Kyle Whittingham said, ruefully, after the game.

Whittingham has plenty of evidence to back this up. Every moment following the iffy pass interference call in the end zone at the end of the second quarter went against Utah. The goal line stand at the end of the first half. The awful interception. The red zone turnover returned for a score. Legs get tired, the level of execution drops, and mistakes pile up.

“They always do this to us,” my mother said, referring to Northwestern, soon after Blake Gallagher’s key third-quarter interception. “Just watch, there’ll be 10 more fluke plays that go their way.”

And yet while there is something beautiful and post-able about these epic collapses, it’s also impossible to judge whether this was an incredibly poor sequence of breaks or a series of dominoes. If it’s a domino effect, maybe we can must trace the collapse back to Tyler Huntley’s injury, or even the missed pass interference call that could’ve sent Utah to the Rose Bowl. I don’t know. On television, it looked like a classic momentum shift. In the stands, it looked like a classic momentum shift.

I’m not trying to make a mathematical or football case for momentum. I’ll leave that to the math guys and football guys, who, by the way, are increasingly hanging out and producing insane Pat Fitzgerald fourth down decisions and meticulous Air Raid offenses that I don’t fully understand. I’m just saying that once we introduce the narrative of momentum into our minds, things get weird. Believing in the idea of momentum while you are actually performing something is an act of self-sabotage. I think the key driving force of momentum is belief in momentum itself, making sub-optimal decisions and pressing because you truly believe the world is against you. That’s not Northwestern football’s identity. That was not the way of the Akron Zips on that summer night back in September. That’s not staying gold. Northwestern’s identity is a team that utterly believes in its own seemingly absurd slogans and aphorisms. Going 1-0 every week, expecting victory, doing it the right way, yeah, that’s what makes Northwestern what it is.

By the way, Utah didn’t get here by getting in its own head either. Against BYU, in Utah’s most intense rivalry game of the year, the Utes found themselves down 20-0 at halftime. They came back to win 35-27. By all accounts, Utah dominated Northwestern in the first half. They were the squad with superior execution and the momentum. And then they weren’t. These things happen in college football and in sports all the time. Life is cruel and high variance. The artificial constructs of consistency, the Alabamas and Golden States of the world, are only truly available to the staggeringly fortunate, whether that be money, family, friends, emotional health, or talent. Maybe you can accumulate that consistency, but typically the best way to win for everyone else is to put yourself in the best possible position to succeed with what you have. Expect victory, right? That’s been on the walls long before I started covering the team and will be there in perpetuity.

In the essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” by David Foster Wallace, he analyzes how great athletes function under such enormous stakes.

“The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself,” Wallace writes. “How can great athletes shut off the Iago-like voice of the self? How can they bypass the head and simply superbly act? How, at the critical moment, can they invoke for themselves a cliché as trite as ‘one ball at a time’ or ‘gotta concentrate here’ and mean it, and then do it.”

Northwestern excels at this innocent, or as Wallace puts it, monk-like, ability to simply perform. How else can I explain Gaziano’s brilliant strip sack in the red zone, or Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman breaking huge runs? How else can I explain a touchdown catch for Trey Klock?!

And so despite all the marketing and accoutrements of Chicago’s Big Ten team, despite all our complaining about Mick McCall or Adam Cushing or the referees, what makes Northwestern a truly excellent football team on a year-to-year basis is the same thing that makes Tua Tagovailoa and that guy in pickup basketball who always wins. It’s not a guarantee — there’s always a chance that it’s the Akron Zips on the other side who remain more clinical, but Northwestern puts itself in a good position to succeed more often than not. There’s not much hard evidence backing this, but I always like to point to the sheer number of previously unheralded contributors on Northwestern team, from Chad Hanaoka, to Earnest Brown IV, to that unforgettable Trey Klock play. Seemingly no injury can take this team fully out of a game (remember, Northwestern beat Purdue with T.J. Green taking half the snaps at quarterback and beat Kentucky with Matt Alviti last year). This is something that has happened over and over again in this four-year run since 2015.

Even if Northwestern loses eight games next year and disappoints everyone, I hope it maintains the ability to remove itself from the situation and just play. I would not call it the “clutch gene”, but rather the “zen gene”, a way to perform and not give up no matter the circumstance. That is what Mark Murphy of the Green Bay Packers is looking for when he tries to unsuccessfully hire Pat Fitzgerald. It’s not raw production, it’s the soft concepts, the philosophy and belief that draws people to Northwestern and draws Northwestern to success.

Northwestern football won 36 games while I was enrolled at the school. That’s something no other class of seniors had ever dream of. Now, it’s a level we expect. The Holiday Bowl was so stereotypically Northwestern that I could scarcely believe it. Northwestern’s belief in its own identity may seem nonsensical or even naive, but it has brought me far more good memories than bad. Stay gold, Northwestern, for better or for worse.