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Northwestern football post-mortem, December & January: Bouncing back, nearly shocking

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There was up, down and a lot in between. But the Wildcats ended on a high note.

Big Ten Championship - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With Northwestern’s revival season, we 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 season-opener in East Lansing 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 final edition of this series continues after a devastating loss and concludes with the devouring of various citrus fruits in the Florida sun.

December: Time to Regroup

While Northwestern’s loss to Michigan State in late November shattered all Playoff hopes, its goals still remained in front of it.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Minnesota dealt with a COVID outbreak which forced the Golden Gophers to cancel their December 5 tilt against the Wildcats. The cancellation prevented Northwestern from controlling its own destiny and clinching the division with a win in Minneapolis.

Instead, due to Big Ten rules, only three conference games needed to be played that weekend for the ‘Cats to clinch the West, which happened December, so Northwestern officially clinched its second Big Ten Championship appearance in three years on the team’s bye week. A bit less dramatic than the catch in Iowa City, sure, but certainly beneficial to those struggling with heart issues due to watching the Cardiac ‘Cats in prior years.

Despite clinching the West, Northwestern had to face Illinois the following week. Even though Ohio State was off and had an extra week to prepare for the Big Ten Championship, head coach Pat Fitzgerald made sure his team would be ready for the Illini.

In his weekly press conference, when asked about the program’s long-term trajectory, Fitz decreed “For us now our focus is on the Land of Lincoln rivalry. We understand the challenge we have in front of us and so our guys will be excited for senior day, and we will be excited to take on a rival. That’s where our focus is right now.”

The ‘Cats certainly were ready for their rival. Northwestern quickly erased a 3-0 deficit and ran for over 400 yards to win 28-10, securing the HAT for a sixth consecutive year.

The focus then turned to Ohio State, and Fitz, as expected, played the underdog card before the game week even officially began. After beating Illinois and being asked about Ohio State, Fitz said that he was sure the ‘Cats would be “underdogs by like 70.”

While Fitz knew everyone outside NU was counting out his program, he made sure everyone inside the program believed.

When speaking to the media, senior wide receiver Riley Lees said the the last time NU was in the Big Ten Championship in 2018, they “had the approach that we were happy to win the West.” He continued by saying that this time, though, “our goals have superseded that and our expectations are to win the Big Ten Championship. And that’s going to be our mindset going into this game.”

Peyton Ramsey echoed Lees’ statement, and though Northwestern may not have won, but it went down swinging and earned the respect of many.

After an opening drive lasting over eight minutes, Northwestern’s defense found a way to hold Ohio State’s offense to three points.

NU responded with quite possibly its best drive of the season. Fans got a glimpse of the running back of the future in true freshman Cam Porter, who had 30 all-purpose yards while Peyton Ramsey added a 31-yard scamper. One play after the Ramsey run, Porter dashed into the end zone out of the Wildcat formation to cement a quick lead.

The ‘Cats and Buckeyes traded punts through the rest of the first quarter and subsequently traded field goals throughout the second quarter. Then, on the last possession of the first half, with the ‘Cats up four points, Ohio State drove 76 yards in a two-minute drill. On second-and-5 from Northwestern’s nine-yard line with roughly 30 seconds remaining in the first half, safety Brandon Joseph made quite possibly the play of the year, making an acrobatic interception of Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields.

Out of halftime, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian once again scripted a solid drive, leading NU to OSU’s nine yard-line. On third-and-8, Ramsey forced a pass to the end zone that was intercepted by Justin Hilliard. The ‘Cats’ defense once again responded on the following possession with an interception off of Fields, but the offense failed to make anything of the turnover. Ohio State missed a field goal on the next possession, but Northwestern once again failed to convert on the Buckeyes’ mistake as Charlie Kuhbander missed a long kick.

After several blown opportunities, Ohio State finally leaned on Trey Sermon, and he scampered all over the Wildcats. Sermon finished the game with 331 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The Buckeyes ultimately won the contest 22-10, but the game was in doubt until late in the fourth quarter.

Whether you believe in moral victories or not, the ‘Cats impressed the college football world, and their performance would only be more appreciated after OSU’s 49-28 dismantling of Clemson in the National Semifinal.

The ‘Cats were rewarded for their valiant effort and season with a Citrus Bowl berth against Auburn, although some still felt that a Big Ten blue blood with a resume comparable to Northwestern would have been rewarded with a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Following the Big Ten Championship, several notable Wildcats like star pass-rusher Eku Leota, senior wide receiver Kyric McGowan, junior running back Isaiah Bowser and underclassmen Malik Washington, Gunner Maldonado, Jeremiah McDonald all announced intentions to transfer. Washington has since decided to return. In addition to the six transfers, stud cornerback Greg Newsome II declared his intentions to declare for the NFL Draft.

While all seven players who entered the portal didn’t suit up against Auburn, one outgoing member of Northwestern’s football program suited up on January 1: defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.

In Hank’s final game of his coaching career, his defense started hot. Auburn’s first four possessions went three-and-out, three-and-out, turnover on downs and three-and-out. On the other side of the ball, Northwestern’s offense opened the game with two touchdowns on its first three possessions. The ‘Cats ultimately led 14-6 at the half.

In the second half, Auburn scored a touchdown early cutting NU’s lead to one point, but that was the closest the Tigers got. NU, led by a standout day from Ramsey, scored three consecutive touchdowns and ultimately won 35-19.

Ramsey decided he’d go out on top, announcing later in January that he was declaring for the League. Fortunately for NU, the quarterback question has largely been answered as ex-South Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski announced last week he was transferring to Evanston.