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The Road To Indy: Recapping the 2020 Northwestern football season

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This one was unlike any other.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a certain irony to the fact that, after coming off a 3-9 year in which it won a single conference game, Northwestern football had one of its best seasons in recent memory yet wasn’t allowed to play in front of the public. Few got to see them play live, as most were sidelined to their couches and chairs, forced to embrace this season from a distance.

On August 11, we thought football wasn’t going to happen. The Big Ten’s decision to postpone the season until at least the spring seemed clear, and while many were advocating for the season to go on — including most players — it didn’t appear that the Council of Presidents and Chancellors was going to change course after its 9-3 vote.

But nothing about these few B1G months is ever confirmed, sensical or thought out.

On September 17, the Big Ten officially announced that a modified, eight-week, conference-only season was to begin the weekend of October 23-24. Five weeks later, Ryan Field opened its gates to welcome the Maryland Terrapins. Now, in mid December, the No. 14 Northwestern Wildcats sit at 6-1 and in the Big Ten Championship Game against the fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Let’s rewind and take a look at how the ‘Cats made it back to Indianapolis for the second time in three years.

And before we begin, we rarely mention it since someone else asks the team about it every week, but Northwestern has not recorded a case of COVID-19 since the Big Ten began the daily antigen testing of its 14 teams on September 30. That is impressive in itself.

How we got here

After a dismal season that featured one of the worst Power 5 offenses in modern college football, few projected the Wildcats to make any significant noise this year. NU seemed determined to prove otherwise in its opener against Maryland, scoring 43 unanswered points to flatten the Terrapins 43-3.

Quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who had transferred to Northwestern from Indiana right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, threw for 212 yards and one touchdown while also rushing for 47 yards and a score. It was an encouraging start in Evanston for the veteran signal caller, who has steadied the ship at nearly every turn for the ‘Cats.

“He looked very poised for a young man that’s only been in our program for months now,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Ramsey after the game.

On the defensive side of the ball, NU held Maryland to just 207 yards of total offense. Terps QB Taulia Tagovailoa threw three interceptions and was eventually benched, proving that Northwestern’s defense was going to be a strength yet again.

After their stomping of Maryland, the ‘Cats would go on to play tight games against both Iowa and Nebraska. Out in a windy Iowa City, Northwestern was forced to claw its way back from a 17-point first-quarter deficit, eventually eking out a win in a defensive battle when redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph introduced himself to America. Each team had three turnovers and both were held to under 300 total yards of offense.

Back home the following week against Nebraska, the Wildcats fell behind again. The ‘Cats gave up 13 second quarter points and went into the locker room trailing 13-7 after a poor half from Ramsey, yet they managed to pull out the win as Ramsey threw two second half scores to John Raine and Riley Lees.

One of the biggest takeaways from the victory over the Cornhuskers was Northwestern’s inability to defend against the QB draw. Nebraska quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey ran for 151 yards on the ‘Cats, demonstrating Northwestern’s first real defensive weakness.

“We let them get loose a few times out of the pocket, and that creates another threat on the ground,” senior linebacker Chris Bergin said after the win. “It’s something you’ve got to keep an eye on the whole game. We can play a lot better in that aspect.”

NU continued to struggled against the quarterback runs, and it would end up costing them later on. First, however, Northwestern downed Purdue in the rain behind a stellar, three-touchdown performance from Ramsey and RCB, setting the Wildcats up for a heavyweight B1G West fight against then-No. 10 Wisconsin.

Wisconsin came into this season as favorites to win the Big Ten West, yet after flattening Illinois in their first game, the Badgers suffered from a COVID outbreak that sidelined them for Weeks Two and Three. They came back the week before facing the ‘Cats to destroy Michigan 49-11, but that wasn’t enough.

The Wildcats came out hot against the Badgers. Northwestern scored on its first possession to take an early 7-0 advantage and nearly took a 14-0 lead after Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman caught a trick play pass from Riley Lees but was forced out right before the goal line. On the next play, running back Isaiah Bowser fumbled at the goal line and momentum shifted back in Wisconsin’s favor. Badger quarterback Graham Mertz hit Chimere Dike for a 49-yard touchdown on the next possession to knot things up and make it a game.

From there, it was all Northwestern’s defense. The unit forced five Badger turnovers and a key end-of-half touchdown drive, capped by a gorgeous 25-yard pass from Ramsey to RCB, gave NU a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. The win over the Badgers vaulted Northwestern up to 11th in the AP poll and No. 8 in the first College Football Playoff rankings.

“This victory means a lot, but at the same time it means nothing because we still gotta finish the season, we still got a few more games left,” junior cornerback Greg Newsome II said postgame. “It’s not an upset, we knew we were gonna win this game.”

But the following week, we were reminded that expectations and Northwestern football often don’t mix.

The Wildcats sleepwalked into their matchup with 1-3 Michigan State. NU fell behind 17-0 early in the first quarter, and while they stormed back to score 20 straight points and take a fourth-quarter lead, sloppy play on both sides of the ball gifted MSU a 29-20 victory (really 23-20).

As previously mentioned, QB draw coverage issues proved costly against the Spartans. Michigan State signal caller Rocky Lombardi scrambled 10 times for 65 yards against the ‘Cats, including multiple second-half scampers to convert third downs.

“We got to get better against the quarterback draw. It was Nebraska, it was this game, we got line movements wrong,” Fitzgerald said after the loss. “It’s just disappointing, it’s really disappointing for us to not play that play effectively.”

Northwestern’s next scheduled game against Minnesota was postponed due to COVID cases within the Gopher program, leaving the Wildcats with two weeks to prepare for Illinois. NU was successful in doing so, running for 411 yards and trouncing the Illini 28-10 to win its sixth straight HAT. True freshman running back Cam Porter broke out for 142 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

“I knew coming in that I was going to get a couple of reps, not really knowing how many reps I was going to get,” Porter said. “[It was] definitely a blessing, I tried to take advantage of it and it was great to get things going.”

Now, with the regular season in the rearview mirror, the ‘Cats head into Indianapolis for what is far and away their toughest matchup of 2020. Fitz joked Sunday that they’re probably 70-point underdogs. He’s not that far off. NU is a 20.5-point underdog to OSU, according to several sports books, which is an even larger spread than the 16.5 points by which Ohio State was favored in 2018.

But the Wildcats said the second time around is different now that they’ve been there before.

“There is this sense of urgency that we’re not just going there to compete in this game,” Ramsey said Monday. “We’re going to win it.”