Remember that time when Northwestern lost to No. 2 Ohio State by only 14 points? Yeah, it was only four days ago, but that game feels like a long-distant, glorious, enshrining memory.
After all, the Buckeyes were near 40-point favorites heading into the contest. And who could’ve blamed oddsmakers? The ‘Cats have provided approximately zero reason for hope ever since their Week Zero win against Nebraska — and, in hindsight, that win was far from inspiring (see: Scott Frost being the ‘Huskers’ coach, NU winning by just three). So, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. not being on the receiving end of what many expected to be the biggest Power Five blowout of the year is a win in its own right.
But that mindset probably isn’t a healthy one. Ever trying to justify a double-digit loss is usually a bad sign. “Moral victories” are often synonymous with undeserving contentment. Still, it’s hard not to be satisfied with the slightest showing of promise in this long, excruciatingly undesirable campaign of a season.
Evan Hull, if he hadn’t already, proved he can run through the best of them, ramming his way to a 122-yard outing. Brendan Sullivan played about as well as imaginable against an Ohio State defense that projects to have multiple NFL draft picks.
Buckeyes fans were quick to mention that the Herculean winds swirling around Ryan Field inhibited C.J. Stroud and their offense. But the Wildcats dealt with the same conditions and managed to post just one less rushing yard, more passing yards and more total yards than OSU.
Again, a loss is a loss. Northwestern’s record sunk to its lowest point of the year. Meanwhile, the AP poll kept Ryan Day’s team in the second slot of the rankings.
All of this to say that NU has reached a point in its season where an actual victory is so beyond any fan or coach’s hopes that a well-played defeat is nearly as enjoyable to watch as a win once was. Fitzgerald rolled out a laundry list of superlatives for individual performances against Ohio State in his Monday presser. For the second straight week, he added a joke about the frigid weather in the Big Ten and how much fun it is to play in.
Of course, the head coach will never concede that his team doesn’t have the possibility to win on any given Saturday. But at this point in the year, I’d be shocked if there wasn’t a postgame feeling of relief inside the stomachs of Fitz and his staff for hanging with such an elite Ohio State squad.
The balance for NU has to be somewhere between appreciating game-over-game improvement and understanding that miles of unpaved road lay ahead of it. But what can’t happen is a paralysis towards progress, induced by half-baked pride.
On the bright side, this newfound confidence — though spurred by a loss — might motivate the ‘Cats as they head to Minnesota to take on the Golden Gophers. If Brendan Sullivan, despite being pulled for 17 offensive snaps, can put up the statline he did against that Ohio State defense, he has to feel even better about his outlook this week if he plays.
Luckily, this year has been so deflating for Northwestern that even a solid performance against the Buckeyes can’t totally erase the painful memories. But still, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s reason for worry. Maybe the team’s showing versus OSU was enough to satiate them. Perhaps, knowing a bowl game is wholly out of the picture, hanging with the nation’s second-best team was the victory players had been waiting for. Needless to say, this squad is far from where it needs to be. And while it’s easy to grasp for glimmers of optimism in an otherwise dreary year, NU can’t allow itself to be distracted by constellation prizes and feel-good moments.