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Northwestern football’s checkered history against MAC teams

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There’s a bit of a scary pattern going on!

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Anyone who’s followed Northwestern football team for any amount of time knows that no opponent can be overlooked, no matter how weak they may appear on paper. Even during this current 15-ish year period of success that Pat Fitzgerald has instilled at the program, plenty of frustrating and inexplicable upsets have taken place against the ‘Cats. A subpar Michigan State squad ruined last year’s undefeated season, Illinois State came into Evanston and left with a nearly unwatchable 9-7 win over Northwestern, and so on and so on.

Another one of those infuriating letdowns you might remember is the 2018 dud against Akron. Or the botched late game antics of the 2016 match vs. Western Michigan. Or maybe even that dumbfounding loss to Miami (OH) during what was otherwise the greatest football season in Wildcat history all the way back in 1995. The common denominator that all those three squads share is their being apart of the Mid-American Conference, better known as the MAC and often thought of as the junior varsity league to the Big Ten.

With the ‘Cats set to take on another MAC foe in the Ohio Bobcats this weekend, we’re taking a look at how Northwestern has performed in these games that are denoted as scheduled wins by most, but quite often end with different results.

No Shows

Of the 12 teams currently residing in the MAC, only three have yet to play Northwestern in football — Buffalo, Kent State and Toledo. All three programs have had brief periods of prominence in the college football landscape during the past decade, but are not established as true Group of Five powerhouses, and none of them are currently scheduled to play NU any time in the near future.

One and Done’s

Northwestern got to meet three MAC teams for the first time throughout the 2010s to mixed results, beating Central Michigan and Ball State in 2010 and 2015, respectively, while losing in infamous fashion to the Akron Zips back in 2018. The two victories were nothing to write home about, as the ‘Cats won by five points in each contest over two squads who both went a dreadful 3-9 in their regular season campaigns.

However, we should note that there was a little bit of garbage time aesthetic baked into the final scores, as Northwestern led CMU 30-13 in the fourth quarter before surrendering two touchdowns through the air and needing to recover an onside kick to preserve the win, while Ball State managed a touchdown and a field goal consecutively in the fourth to make the score 24-19, necessitating a Justin Jackson-themed final drive to run out the clock for the ‘Cats.

Securing a victory against Akron, on the other hand, did not go as smoothly to say the least. Despite entering the half with a domineering 21-3 lead, the ‘Cats suffered a collapse of astronomic proportions in the final two quarters, surrendering a whopping 36 points to the visiting Zips whilst scoring only 13 points of their own to fall by a score of 39-34.

With Akron down 21-13 late in the third quarter, a bevy of Clayton Thorson turnovers were what truly catalyzed the collapse. The senior quarterback first threw a pick six in the redzone while trying to escape pressure and throw off his back foot, then was strip sacked in the fourth quarter in a moment of carelessness with the football, and finally had a second interception returned for an Akron score, putting the ‘Cats in a 39-28 hole that they were unable to climb out of despite an impressive touchdown catch from Ben Skowronek in the final minutes.

Of course, the 2018 squad would turn things around and shock the world on their way to a Big Ten title game appearance, but the defeat remains frustrating for many Wildcat supporters.

The Slightly Less Notables

Moving on to some more frequent opponents, we have Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and, of course, Ohio, who the ‘Cats will be getting a fresh new look at this Saturday. In their four previous matchups, NU is 3-1 against the Bobcats, with the single defeat coming all the way back in 1973, while two victories have taken place during the 21st century.

The 3-0 all-time edge Northwestern holds over Eastern Michigan is their only multi-game sweep of any opponent (yes, that is meant as a slight), as Pat Fitzgerald and Co. played them three times in four years back in the late 2000s. Of course, this being Northwestern, none on the wins were particularly dominant, especially the ‘09 matchup that ended in a too close for comfort 27-24 victory for Northwestern.

Last of all there’s Bowling Green, who holds a 2-1 edge OVER the ‘Cats due to defeating Randy Walker-led teams in 2001 and 2003 by a combined five points. Northwestern had to wait all the way till 2017 to return the favor, and did so with style, as their 49-7 win over the Falcons that season is their most dominant MAC win to date.

The Fumble vs Western Michigan

Technically speaking, the all-time series between NU and WMU is even at one apiece due to a 2013 victory the ‘Cats took over the Broncos. But both you and I know that’s not what you came to see.

Touchback. Western Michigan ball. They go on to have an undefeated regular season. Northwestern finishes 7-6. Yuck.

Curse you Miami (OH)

Not only did the Redhawks ruin what could have been an undefeated regular season for the ‘Cats way back in ‘95, they also boat raced subsequent Northwestern teams by a combined score of 72-17 in ‘99 and ‘03, and ultimately hold a 6-3 lead in the all-time series. NU got their revenge at last in 2006 and 2009, with the first being the famous first game played after the passing of head coach Randy Walker.

Sure, Miami is far from a decrepit football program, and looking through their history you’ll find plenty of gems within their rosters, but there is no excuse for a group of five team located in Northwest Ohio to dominate a power five foe the way that they have.

Funnily enough, this is the one MAC squad NU is signed up for more matches against on future dates, with scheduled games in both 2022 and 2024, when you’ll likely be reading gloom and doom pieces similar to this one during game week. What a glorious cycle it is.

Thank goodness for Northern Illinois

And now, finally, the one team NU has treated like a MAC underling for most of its history, the Northern Illinois Huskies. Despite NIU taking the most recent matchup back in 2014, Northwestern holds a 6-1 edge all-time, giving them quite the boost to their...

Final Record

Which at 19-12 is fairly substandard. Take out NIU, and you’ve barely got yourself a .500 record historically, with several disappointing defeats littered throughout. Here’s to hoping there’s a 20 in that win column by around 3 p.m. CT this Saturday.