With Northwestern’s bounce-back season, we have some extra time to write about how the team exceeded expectations in 2020, taking an in-depth look at how everything unfolded for the ‘Cats. From the supposed-to-be first game in Happy Valley to the Citrus Bowl victory, we examine Northwestern’s unprecedented 2020 season.
We’re going to have a piece on each month of the year, detailing the circumstances surrounding the team. The series continues as the Wildcats reached their peak in November.
November: An outstanding month ends poorly
With the scheduling chaos of September behind them and a couple of early October wins under their belt, the Wildcats prepared to take on the meat of their schedule in November.
Five other Big Ten games were canceled during the course of the month, but Pat Fitzgerald’s squad remained locked in, playing on four straight Saturdays and snatching three wins in the process. Despite making his fair share of mistakes, Peyton Ramsey proved to be the veteran field general the offense was missing in 2019, and the defense firmly established itself as one of the nation’s most elite units.
The ‘Cats began by securing a win against Nebraska at Ryan Field. Despite a couple crucial interceptions by Ramsey, a collective effort by the offense and a dominant second half defensive performance was enough to come away with a victory.
Northwestern relied on Drake Anderson out of the gate. On the opening drive, the speedy back converted a fourth-and-1 in Wildcat territory and a couple plays later burst down the right sideline for the opening touchdown. It was his longest rush of the season and also the last touchdown of his Wildcat career.
While the defense continued to hold the Huskers to short drives or field goals in the first half, the offense began to sputter. Early in the second quarter, Ramsey tried to find Riley Lees down the middle of the field but under threw the ball, resulting in a ricochet off a defender's helmet and into the arms of Nebraska DB Miles Farmer. Two drives later, Farmer picked off Ramsey again, leading to an easy score.
The 13-7 halftime deficit would quickly be overcome, however, as a meticulous 10-play, 61-yard drive ended with grad transfer John Raine catching his first touchdown as a Wildcat from two yards out.
From there the defense took over. While Nebraska quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey kept drives alive with their feet, the NU secondary was stifling. Safety Brandon Joseph and linebacker Chris Bergin each came down with interceptions to stop threatening Cornhusker drives.
Lees caught a 10 yards pass to extend NU’s lead to eight, and Nebraska’s final drive fell short with a turnover on downs. For the third consecutive week, the defense pitched a second-half shoutout, and the ‘Cats came away with a 21-13 win.
Northwestern, now ranked No. 23, pulled off another close one a week later in West Lafayette. The defense again made big plays, collecting three sacks and three turnovers, but it was the passing attack and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s career day that propelled the Wildcats to victory.
The ‘Cats continued their pattern of scoring on opening drives, as they started their matchup with the 2-0 Boilermakers with a 14-play, 75-yard drive lasting exactly six minutes. Ramsey found Chiaokhiao-Bowman for the first time with an 18-yard strike across the middle of the end zone.
After exchanging a few punts and a field goal each, Ramsey missed Lees across the middle, and a tipped interception gave Purdue the ball. With great field position, the Boilermakers converted a fourth-and-1 for a 40-yard touchdown to tight end Garrett Miller.
But the ‘Cats struck right back. After almost losing a fumble and committing a costly holding penalty, RCB got loose along the sideline. Ramsey found him again on the far side of the end zone to take a 17-10 lead into the locker room.
Both teams looked sluggish in the second half until an Eku Leota strip-sack and Paddy Fisher recovery gave the Wildcats a spark. A third RCB touchdown, this one a simple five-yard pass to the flat, gave NU a two-touchdown lead.
Purdue managed to score again early in the fourth, but on their final drive Leota again came up with another huge sack. Unable to convert on fourth-and-long, Northwestern ran the ball out to improve to 4-0.
Next, the ‘Cats drew their toughest matchup of the season — a trip to Madison to play No. 10 Wisconsin. The Badgers had beaten each of their previous two opponents by 38, and with two of their games being canceled, their team was fresh and hungry for a quality win.
And while Northwestern’s defense and coaching had impressed many college football fans, the Tuesday prior to the game, ESPN analyst Joey Galloway commented that the ‘Cats simply had “a bunch of Rece Davises out there running around.” Instead of taking it as a joke, Fitzgerald and the team used the comment as motivation, pounding the Badgers later that week.
The ‘Cats scored on their opening possession once again. With the help of two Wisconsin DPIs, Ramsey completed all four of his passes and found Charlie Mangieri in the back of the end zone.
NU then had the chance to go up two scores after recovering a Badger fumble, but Bowser coughed up the rock on the goal line. Wisconsin followed with a 49-yard touchdown strike from Graham Mertz to Chimere Dike, tying the game at 7-7.
But those would be Wisconsin’s last points. Over the next three quarters, the Northwestern defense forced six punts, two turnovers on downs and three interceptions, two of which were made by Joseph.
An RCB touchdown near the end of the first half and a Charlie Kuhbander field goal at the beginning of the fourth were all Northwestern needed to pull off the 17-7 upset, as the defense suffocated Wisconsin’s dangerous passing attack.
Excluding the Citrus Bowl, NU’s win over Wisconsin was its biggest of the year. In the first College Football Playoff ranking, the undefeated ‘Cats found themselves at No. 8, and talk of a playoff birth was circulating. Even Fitz got in on the hype, poking fun at Galloway’s comments from the previous week.
Heading into the Michigan State game, the red-hot Wildcats were executing on offense and defense and playing with plenty of confidence. That’s what made their performance in East Lansing so surprising.
The 2-3 Spartans had lost their last two games by a combined margin of 66 and hadn’t scored more than a touchdown in either game. But they came out hot against the ‘Cats, taking advantage of blown coverage for a 75-yard deep shot on their second possession and picking off Ramsey on fourth down a drive later.
A 15-yard strike from quarterback Rocky Lombardi put the Spartans up 17-0 early in the second quarter, but a couple of Kuhbander field goals cut the lead to 17-6 at the half.
The commanding Northwestern defense recovered in the second half and short touchdown runs from Ramsey and Cam Porter put the ‘Cats up 20-17. But two bad fourth-quarter turnovers each led to field goals for Michigan State, and the offense couldn’t retake the lead. A failed lateral on the last play of the game sealed the win for Michigan State and brought any hope of a Northwestern playoff appearance crashing to the ground.
Northwestern’s 5-0 start shocked the college football world and, considering last year’s miserable season, put the team in an unimaginable spot: playoff contention. Unfortunately, a poor performance against Michigan State shattered any playoff chances, but the successful month finished with the ‘Cats atop the West and in position to clinch their second Big Ten Championship appearance in three years.