After a frustrating loss to Stanford, Northwestern is fortunate enough to have a bye week to potentially help improve upon the many miscues from Saturday’s game. In the middle of this season’s first week off, we decided to provide you with a little bit of the recent history surrounding Wildcat football and the bye.
It is well-documented that Northwestern football has typically started off the season slowly in recent years. The past six seasons have seen the Wildcats fall to a series of frustrating non-conference opponents in Akron, Duke (twice), Illinois State, Western Michigan, and even Northern Illinois.
While this past week’s loss fails to reach those previous heights, the team would benefit significantly from a resounding victory over UNLV (who looked relatively good against, it should be noted, extremely weak competition in Southern Utah this past weekend).
It may be tempting for the team to keep one eye on upcoming matchups against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, but the most important thing for Northwestern to do over this much-needed break is to get healthy before this season-defining stretch begins.
After suffering four prominent injuries in the Stanford game, the Wildcats will look especially to get CB Trae Williams and RB Isaiah Bowser healthy ahead of the most difficult part of the schedule. As our Claire Kuwana described in her bye week injury report, LT Rashawn Slater appears to healthy again, and QB TJ Green’s significant injury will keep him out long-term.
Though they typically don’t come this early in the season, Northwestern has typically used their time for rest and recuperation well in the past. Resounding victories against Michigan State in 2016 and Penn State in 2015, along with close losses against very good teams in Wisconsin in 2017 and Michigan last season, have all come off of bye weeks. Over the past five years, the Wildcats are 3-3 in such situations, adding an easy win over Western Illinois and a blowout loss to Iowa to the tally.
In both the post-bye Michigan and Wisconsin games, the Wildcats had possession down one score with less than one minute to go. In last year’s matchup with the Wolverines, Northwestern blew a big first half lead only to have a chance to win with a potential miracle drive. The game ended with a Thorson sack as he tried to heave up a Hail Mary.
The end of the Wisconsin game from two years ago was largely reminiscent of the end of regulation against Nebraska last season (with the outcomes being very different). The Wildcats had the ball on their own two yard line with 1:05 seconds down 7 points. This time, instead of driving the team 98 yards, Thorson took a costly safety, effectively ending things in Camp Randall.
The victory over Michigan State was a resounding one, capped off by outstanding performances by Justin Jackson and Austin Carr (and a loud safety forced by Joe Gaziano). Northwestern appeared to be letting Michigan State back into the game, with the Spartans drawing within two late in the second half, until a 95 yard Solomon Vault kick return touchdown put the Wildcats, who ended up cruising to a 54-40 win, firmly in control for good.
A year earlier, late in the first quarter of the 2015 Penn State game, Clayton Thorson limped off and Zack Oliver stepped up to take down a talented team in the 7-2 Nittany Lions. Another Vault return score took the Wildcats’ lead from 13-7 to 20-7, before a Saquon Barkley touchdown capped off a comeback to give Penn State a late advantage. The Wildcats responded, driving 36 yards from their own 46 to kick a game-winning field goal off the leg of Jack Mitchell.
The common thread between all four contests (as with countless other Northwestern games, especially recently) is the Wildcats jumping out to an early lead, before the bend-don’t-break defense manages to keep them in things.
Going into next Saturday, there are certainly some questions for both sides of the football, but the defense continued to display that they are capable of hanging around even when seemingly struggling. Though the offense couldn’t seal the deal this time, it was evident that they began to grow into the game down the stretch (with the late, potentially game-tying or winning drive stalling due to a holding penalty).
An early-season loss to a ranked Stanford team is far from devastating, especially since Pat Fitzgerald’s team has made consistent improvements after bye weeks in recent years. If that success continues, instead of another, more negative early-season trend dominating the conversation, the Wildcats could be back on track in no time.