Pat Fitzgerald, Mick McCall and the entire Northwestern Wildcats team has faced criticism the last week. Even after an overtime win over Iowa. Not that they care — being in their football bubble. Media criticism is not likely to penetrate.
Fans, at least, spent the whole week dissecting this Northwestern team and wondering just how they could get better. The famous scapegoat of offensive coordinator Mick McCall was in the crosshairs. Fitzgerald took criticism for his decision to sit on the ball heading into a steep wind in a tie game with 80 seconds to play.
Really these criticisms were bubbling throughout the entire season. Northwestern was not going to achieve its goal of competing for a Big Ten West title (in all likelihood) and the team was going to beat some lesser and equal opponents to preserve a bowl game, a solid record and likely no change the team desperately needed.
The team’s general security has created a perception among fans, at least, that Northwestern is satisfied with where it is at as a program and unwilling to take a risk to make itself better. It has also created a perception that despite getting recruiting honors and talented players in the last several years, the team is struggling to develop players, particularly on offense.
In general, if there is a criticism of Northwestern that has simmered for several years it is the team has lost much of its offensive character. Every year follows the same pattern and the team ultimately disappoints as it tries to figure out who it wants to be or tries to be something it is not. The team rarely plays like the plucky underdog anymore, cracking out that feat of desperation only when they are desperate.
Those concerns will not go away after this season — a year where Northwestern had veteran leaders and Big Ten West dreams. The way the Wildcats have played since their losses to the Badgers and Nittany Lions suggest this expectation was not unfounded. The disappointment of defeat just came all at once. And Northwestern needed time to come into its own.
But Northwestern has come into its own. Facing continued adversity and a loaded defense preparing to face Justin Jackson and the run game, Clayton Thorson displayed the patience Northwestern has waited for all year. He rarely forced any throws. And his offensive line rarely put him in position to scramble or run for his life. When they did, he read it perfectly.
The Wildcats’ game-winning touchdown exemplified this. As Michigan State brought star linebacker Joe Bachie, Northwestern’s offensive line held firm. Justin Jackson read the play perfectly and picked up the blitz, allowing Thorson to sling the ball to Flynn Nagel. He beat his man down the sideline, holding off his arm tackles before diving into the end zone.
The Wildcats converted the two-point conversion and held firm for a 39-31 triple-overtime win over No. 16 Michigan State.
The game-clinching play as Joe Gaziano forced a fumble from Brian Lewerke. Lewerke picked it up, scrambled out of the pocket and threw it into double coverage. Nate Hall met the ball in the end zone and wrestled it away to seal the victory.
Here was the fast-slinging Northwestern offense with defensive bravado the team had been looking for. It may have come too late for Big Ten title dreams, but this is a fun team. Almost exactly who everyone thought they could be.
The coaching staff may have to answer those questions about why, for the second straight year no less, it took a few weeks for this team to find its rhythm. But there is no doubt Northwestern put on quite a number against Michigan State.
After giving up a ton of yards on the first two possessions, Northwestern buckled down. A red zone turnover and a pair of missed field goals helped energize the defense. And push the offense a bit further.
At what point in the last few years would Northwestern even attempt a halfback pass? There was Justin Jackson taking a toss and rearing up to throw, finding Bennet Skowronek for a 17-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
With Michigan State loading up against Jackson (41 yards, 17 carries), who would have thought Clayton Thorson would have the patience to make the Spartans pay? Thorson threw for 356 yards on 33-for-48 passing and two touchdowns. He kept taking what the defense gave him and threw it underneath where Flynn Nagel and Cameron Green made work running the crossing routes.
The defense did its job too. Just like it has for much of the last three years.
Lewerke threw for a Michigan State record 445 yards on 39-for-57 passing. Like Northwestern, Michigan State quickly abandoned the run. And the Wildcats’ secondary looked weak as it has all year. But the team still did not break. Northwestern forced a turnover in the red zone and then held steady the rest of the game. The offense did its job too, at least flipping field position to give Michigan State a long field.
Even though the Spartans drove 86 yards for the game-tying touchdown with 25 seconds left, Northwestern kept its confidence. A quick strike to start overtime showed Michigan State that Northwestern was not going to back down. And in the second overtime, Northwestern’s offense picked up its tired defense. Justin Jackson capped off the drive with his lone touchdown run. And the Wildcats offense kept things going from there to win it in the third overtime.
This season has not turned out the way Northwestern ultimately wanted to. There is likely no trip to Indianapolis upcoming.
But the team has developed into the team it always thought it would be. Hard-charging defensively, dynamic and disciplined offensively. The Wildcats are starting to get their weapons on both sides of the ball in space to make big plays. And they are making those big plays. If there is a big blob of good, not great teams in the middle of the Big Ten after the Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin group, Northwestern is near the front of that pack.
Will that settle anyone on those big questions about the program? Likely not. Results matter at some point. And fans are restless to avoid 6-6, 7-5 and another mid-tier bowl game. At some point, everyone wants to be in a Big Ten title race.
But Northwestern has finally discovered its identity. The team has found a formula that works and is burning off impressive wins. The Wildcats are a team to be reckoned with. Whatever that might ultimately be worth.