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Where are we Wednesday: Eager for another Saturday

What is this foreign feeling of hope?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t remember a single time last year when I didn’t dread watching Northwestern play football on a Saturday.

As the days got colder, the season got more and more bleak, and every weekend left my heart feeling heavy. Now? Pure, unadulterated excitement. Although it feels absolutely foreign, it’s exactly the sensation I’ve been looking for.

NU’s first half (and even the beginning of the third quarter) against the Nittany Lions last week was one of the best showings I’ve seen from this team all season. The offense was able to snatch 13 points from Manny Diaz’s defense, something not even Iowa could do — and the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 24 in the country at the time.

As for the Wildcats’ defense, they’ve tended to be more of a problem area so far. Until Penn State, they were having a lot of trouble stopping their opponents’ run game; at Duke, Northwestern allowed a hefty 268 rushing yards with an average of 6.7 yards on the play. Last week, there was vast improvement — I’ll let these pictures do the talking.

Rewind the clock another week to the most unforgettable Saturday yet (for good reason, finally) against the Golden Gophers. There’s video evidence somewhere of me screaming as Charlie Mangieri caught that last pass from Ben Bryant before, all of a sudden, I’m sprinting onto the field with the most loyal of fans. For the first time since last men’s basketball season, I felt genuine hope while sitting in the student section.

Northwestern can win against Howard. I believe it has the talent and capability; so long as they put everything together, the ‘Cats’ victory is imminent. Now, I can’t say I’ve followed the Bison as closely this year as NU’s other Big Ten opponents, but I see in Northwestern a lot of promise.

Looking back at the UTEP game, the Wildcats went for 391 total yards, five touchdowns and the defense added three interceptions. Each touchdown was scored by a different person — some names on that list include Jack Lausch, Thomas Gordon and Joseph Himon II.

On a more melancholic note, the last time NU played an FCS school was when the ‘Cats fell to the likes of Southern Illinois in September of last year. To this day, I try to forget that game. Ryan Hilinski went 27-for-43, but ended the game with two interceptions, and the ‘Cats fell just a touchdown short of the win. This game was the precursor to the poor performance the team demonstrated during that dreaded conference slate. Luckily, the circumstances are different this time; unlike the 2022 squad, this year’s guys have already proved their skill against UTEP, Minnesota and even Penn State.

I’d love to see some players shine versus Howard that we might not have heard as much about this year. I’m thinking of Cam Johnson, who’s averaged about 51 yards a game; I think the transfer from Arizona State has a lot left to show. Defensively, I think Devin Turner has really prospered so far. The sophomore has 16 solo tackles on the season, and I think this Saturday offers the chance to be a breakout weekend for him. If the ‘Cats are doing well enough, I’d even want to see playing time for Brendan Sullivan. I do think he has work to do, but there’s so much room for him to develop into a great quarterback.

If we’re looking further into the future, the matchups I’m really looking at are against Nebraska, Purdue and the regular season finale against rival Illinois. The Wildcats share a two-win, three-loss record with each of these teams, and they have a better conference record than Illinois and Nebraska, who have yet to win a Big Ten matchup.

I can admit it: my preseason projections were wrong. I wildly underestimated the way this team would play in conference games. Rutgers might have been a low point, sure, but the ‘Cats have been climbing up the ladder from there. I thought at a certain point that one win would have been a miracle, but now four or five wins seems to be a reasonable expectation.