Over the course of the past decade, during seasons both successful and disappointing, Northwestern has seen more than their fair share of struggles against lesser opponents outside of Big Ten play. Here is a list of the top five worst Wildcat non-conference losses since 2010. I promise that writing this article (and reliving these games) was as difficult as reading it will be.
Disclaimer: Matt’s rankings do not necessarily reflect those of the staff, which is crazy to even be able to say given that he is only covering just over nine seasons.
5) 2014: California (31-24)
After an opening game win in the 2013 season at Cal, the Wildcats played host to the Golden Bears to open the 2014 season. Northwestern, led by Trevor Siemian, struggled early, with Jared Goff’s Cal, who jumped out to a 17-0 lead. A 54-yard Siemian touchdown pass to Cameron Dickerson was the Wildcats’ lone score in the opening frame.
An early-third quarter Golden Bears touchdown extended their lead to 31-7 before Northwestern battled back, though NU’s efforts proved futile after a late-game Siemian interception at the Cal 15 sealed things with a little over 1 minute left. This one was never quite as close as the final score shows.
4) 2014: NIU (23-15)
The week after the Cal loss, the Wildcats faced off against Northern Illinois in a painful-to-watch defensive struggle. The first half was largely forgettable, with zero points scored between the two teams. A notable second quarter drop by wide receiver Miles Shuler was the best scoring chance in the half for the Wildcats.
A 19-yard connection from Siemian to Prater (the latter’s first touchdown for the Wildcats) gave Northwestern a 7-3 lead. Two straight Drew Hare touchdown passes and a third score, though, flipped things on their head, suddenly granting NIU a massive 23-7 lead over their power conference foe.
A fourth quarter touchdown from Zach Oliver (who came in for an injured Siemian) to Pierre Youngblood-Ary and a subsequent two point conversion made it a one score game, before a missed onside kick ended things. Again, a final score that makes things appear within reach does not tell the full story of what was truly a dismal loss.
3) 2011: Army (21-14)
The dreaded triple option. The Wildcats (with Dan Persa only available as an “emergency quarterback” after missing the first two games rehabbing from surgery) travelled to West Point, for some reason, to face the Black Knights. Army (who finished the season 3-9) struck first, after a commanding 8 minute drive that took up most of the first quarter.
After a series of punts and an Army missed field goal, a 14-yard Kain Colter touchdown pass to Jeremy Ebert leveled the score. But a shanked 26-yard Jeff Budzien field goal proceeded to end a mediocre half for the Wildcats. From there, the Black Knights took control, scoring on the first possession of the third quarter before a series of eight straight empty possessions between the teams (the eighth a missed 25-yard Army field goal). This one wasn’t a whole lot of fun for the spectators.
With a little under 7 minutes left in the game, third-string quarterback Trevor Siemien entered his second career game. Three plays into his first drive, he found Ebert for a 62-yard touchdown, suddenly giving the Wildcats hope.
Quickly, though, the Black Knights drove down the field to retake the lead. A final Northwestern effort ended with a turnover on downs, sealing a disappointing (and quite boring, all told) loss.
2) 2018: Akron (39-34)
After starting the season with an away win at Purdue, the Wildcats lost a frustrating game at Duke for the second straight season. Northwestern then had their, by far, easiest non-conference opponent in Akron coming right before their bye week (with Michigan looming in the future). You know the rest.
Northwestern led 21-3 at half before they fell apart, with the Wildcats giving up 36 second-half points. To Akron. The Wildcats had the ball within the Zips 40 yard-line 10 times in the game, while the Zips took three Northwestern turnovers to the house, including a 96-yard interception return.
Akron scored 23 points in the third quarter and 13 in the 4th in a surreal explosion of scoring, with QB Kato Nelson’s efforts, along with Northwestern’s meltdown, proving just enough to propel the Zips over the top. The Wildcats were reduced to a last Hail Mary chance as time expired, but the pass was batted down.
1) 2016: Illinois State (9-7)
The loss that tops the list: a brutal 9-7 defeat to FCS Illinois State that was probably the program’s worst of the century. Let’s get into it!
The Redbirds scored a second-quarter touchdown to strike first, before missing the extra point. An interception by Montre Hartage just minutes later lit a temporary spark for the Wildcats, providing them their most successful drive in the first half — getting all the way to the ISU 16 before missing a 33-yard field goal. Not great!
The game remained at a stalemate for the third quarter, before a fourth quarter Clayton Thorson touchdown pass to Austin Carr and subsequent extra point finally gave the Wildcats a 7-6 lead.
A series of punts pinned the Redbirds deep with not a lot of time remaining. But just as Northwestern fans were letting out a sigh of relief, an Illinois State team that went on to finish the season 6-6, losing to such luminaries as Bo Pelini-led Youngstown State, Central Arkansas, Eastern Illinois, and Indiana State drove through the severely injury-depleted Northwestern secondary before doinking in a 33 yard field goal off the left upright as time expired. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
WMU (2016): Even though they ended up going undefeated and it got overshadowed by, as mentioned above, the Illinois State loss that occurred a week later, it sure looked bad at the time.
The Duke ones (2017/18): The first was the worst because of how thorough the blowout felt, though the second may have been even worse to watch.
Stanford (2019): It was just downright ugly!