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2019 Northwestern Football Post-Mortem, November: Feeling a bit better

The beginning of the month felt like a hangover from October, but there were signs of life to finish out the season.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

With Northwestern failing to make a bowl game this year, we have some extra time to write about the team’s failings in 2019, taking an in-depth look at how everything unfolded for the ‘Cats. From the Stanford debacle to eight consecutive Big Ten losses, our staff will examine the historically poor season.

We’re going to have a piece on each month of the year, detailing the circumstances surrounding the team. After a demoralizing October, we head to November, where the season’s goals were already lost, but some memories were salvaged for the outgoing seniors:

The Ohio State drubbing, followed by a depressing shutout loss to Iowa on a rainy homecoming, didn’t lead Northwestern into the season’s final month with much confidence.

A week after losing to Iowa in ugly fashion, the ‘Cats headed down to Bloomington for the first time since 2011 to face a surging Indiana under the lights. During that gameweek, there was a lot of news surrounding the program when Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reported that Hunter Johnson’s mother had been battling with cancer, a main reason he had not been playing the entire month of October.

In Johnson’s homecoming of sorts to his native state, there was some speculation that he’d see the field, and he did for some time, but it didn’t matter. Aidan Smith started for the fourth week in a row, and on the first play of the game he took off for a 25-yard run, but fumbled before he went down. That set the tone for the ‘Cats, whose offense struggled to pick up first downs and whose defense was uncharacteristically poor from the get go.

By the end of the first half, Northwestern had seemingly reached a new low, down 21 to the Hoosiers and running into the halftime locker room following this play.

Hunter Johnson also got injured in his return after he was thrown to the turf when the refs refused to blow the whistle when he was wrapped up.

Still winless in conference, the ‘Cats faced a much more favorable matchup next week at home versus an injury-ravaged Purdue squad. Things started swimmingly, with newly converted running back Kyric McGowan taking a handoff 80 yards to the house, jumpstarting a 14-0 first quarter lead for NU.

Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano forced a safety as well, but after the early lead, it was mostly Purdue. The Boilermakers, led by walk-on third-string QB Aidan O’Connell, clawed back to take a lead, only to see Aidan Smith find Riley Lees for the go-ahead score midway through the fourth.

NU had a prime chance to put the six-game losing streak to bed, but after a drive that ate up over seven minutes of clock, kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed a 32-yard field goal that would have made their lead 25-21. On the ensuing drive, aided by a crucial pass interference penalty on fourth down, Purdue marched down the field to kick the game-winning field goal with three seconds left.

The 1-8 ‘Cats headed into their mid-November cupcake as 39.5-point favorites to lowly UMass. Anyone following Northwestern and its offense was confused as to how oddsmakers thought it could put up 40 points, but the Wildcats proved them right in the Malört Bowl, nearly covering the spread by winning 45-6. Aidan Smith couldn’t get anything going, but freshman running back Evan Hull carried the torch, rushing for 220 yards and four scores.

If it wasn’t obvious from that game that Northwestern simply didn’t play well, Fitz lit into his quarterbacks the following Monday at his weekly presser, saying the position group wasn’t prepared for the season and that he’d fix that room first.

The following Saturday against a top-ten Minnesota team, NU was simply overmatched. Aidan Smith was out with an injury, so Johnson started, but it was more of the same for him. He was constantly running for his life in the backfield and once again left the game injured.

The Wildcats trailed 21-0 in the first half before getting on the board via a Joe Gaziano-forced safety, which was also recorded as his program record-breaking sack. Fourth-stringer Andrew Marty took over for Johnson after the injury and played admirably, but the Gophers kept NU at arm’s length the entire way, winning 38-22.

At long last, it was rivalry week, and the nightmarish season was soon to be laid to rest. Fitz was trying to defend the HAT and win it for the fifth straight time, but this time it was the ‘Cats who were underdogs facing a bowl-bound Illini team. In a sweet ending to a bitter campaign, NU rolled over Illinois in Champaign, racking up 378 yards on the ground en route to a 29-10 HAT victory. Even in a down year, the Fighting Fitzes managed to salvage a big win.

November gave fans a diversity of tastes, and ultimately a rewarding ending. What would happen on the next day, the first day of December, though, might have been more important than anything that occurred on the field.