Northwestern was on the doorstep of a victory over Ohio State at Ohio Stadium. They came up short but showed a ton of resolve in the process.
Northwestern was literally on the doorstep of history.
The Wildcats had not gone to Ohio Stadium to defeat the Buckeyes since 1971. They have only one other win over the Buckeyes since that time anyway. And the scars of that GameDay-centric defeat from 2013 still ring the program.
Northwestern is still trying to fight those ghosts and reach that height of consistency and possibility.
Pat Fitzgerald spent his weeklong run up joking about how he has never been a recruiting battle against Ohio State and if he were, he clearly lost. This seemed like a lopsided fight.
Behind the scenes, Fitzgerald was calling this a heavyweight fight. And it turned into one where Northwestern stood toe to toe with No. 6 Ohio State.
The Wildcats did come up short. The Buckeyes offense woke up long enough to overpower the Wildcats on a long drive for the final score. Northwestern answered back and faced third and goal before penalties forced them to a field goal. They never saw the ball again.
In the process though, Northwestern stood tall. They went 15 rounds with the conference’s heavyweight and at least forced the judges to make a decision. The four-point deficit was the closest loss for Northwestern at the Horseshoe since that win in 1971 — they did lose by nine points in 1979.
Not that it is any consolation.
The Wildcats have seemingly rescued their season in many ways. They still sit at 4-4 — which Fitzgerald would tell the media afterward means they are an average football team. But the Wildcats seem to be much more. Heading into the second half of their conference season, they are still in the hunt for a B1G West title and brimming with confidence.
Here is what we learned Saturday:
Northwestern’s offense is legitimate
I hit on a lot about Clayton Thorson’s maturation after the game Saturday. It bears some repeating as he threw for 256 yards on 22-for-42 passing. All with Justin Jackson not eclipsing 100 yards (or 20 carries).
The Wildcats found a lot of success moving the ball against a strong and talented Buckeyes defense. And they largely protected Thorson, who was sacked just once. He showed great pocket presence to move around the pressure and step up or take off when the gates opened. Thorson is still smart getting rid of the ball when he is flushed out of the pocket too.
What was more impressive was the length of Northwestern’s scoring drives.
At one point during the ESPN broadcast, Tom Luginbill demonstrated how far 85 yards looks (compared to 75) in an odd display of television. The Wildcats scored on that drive to tie the game. Northwestern had three drives of 75 yards or more and all four of their scoring drives were at least 60 yards or more.
That is the sign of a confident and strong offense. Northwestern was able to move the ball down the field and control possession. Considering how much of a problem that was at the beginning of the year, it is quite the transformation for the team.
Pat Fitzgerald’s conservative nature still can hamper
Pat Fitzgerald is a conservative coach. The moments where he gets aggressive are notable for their rarity. It is seen in the gameplan where he has tried to turn the team into a tradition Big Ten running team without perhaps the offensive line strength to do so. His clock management and in-game decisions often come under fire.
When Fitzgerald and his Northwestern teams are at their best is when they push the tempo, get into rhythm and play without smart abandon — no turnovers and the like.
Fitzgerald was plenty aggressive with his gameplan Saturday. Northwestern’s offense continued the perimeter play and there is plenty of growing trust in Thorson to run the offense. This team is suddenly successful again.
The Wildcats went 2 for 2 on fourth downs and 8 for 16 on third downs. Northwestern’s play calling throughout much of the game was aggressive on offense and got the Wildcats moving. It added to the swagger that would be necessary to win this game.
Late in the game, some of Fitzgerald’s bad tendencies showed through.
Facing first and goal, Fitzgerald ran a run up the middle that went nowhere. He then made a great call on a jet sweep wide receiver pass that fell incomplete. On third down though, he ran up the middle again. The Wildcats were called for a flag. And a throw to the end zone incomplete later, he opted to kick a field goal and turn things over to his defense.
Northwestern never saw the ball again.
Fitzgerald showed plenty of aggression throughout the game. But this big of mismanagement — followed by holding onto his timeouts too long as Ohio State converted two third downs to ice the game away — cost the offense a chance to turn around and win.
And then there was the defensive line. . .
Pressure is the key to success
Through much of the first half of the game, Northwestern seemed relatively content to keep everything in front of them and commit as many players as possible to zone coverage. The Wildcats relied largely on a four-man front to get pressure.
J.T. Barrett had all day to throw and, early on, he picked Northwestern apart. Barrett ended the day with 223 yards on 21-for-32 passing.
Part of that gameplan was certainly to protect Northwestern’s depleted secondary. If Ohio State got big plays throughout the game, it was because of missed or broken tackles rather than heaves downfield. That was part of the Cats gameplan for sure.
But Ohio State scored against it. The Wildcats did not really pick up their pace defensively until they got more pressure, whether it was the front four or Godwin Igwebuike flying into the backfield to stop the run.
Northwestern’s best defensive success comes when they get pressure. They have largely been able to do that with a four-man rush. Ohio State though controlled Ifeadi Odenigbo for the most part and gave Barrett time to throw.
The Wildcats will have to continue to find ways to create pressure to support their secondary. Of course, that also leaves them more on an island. This balance will dictate Northwestern’s defense throughout the rest of the season.
Predicting the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats season
What Northwestern is appropriately billing as the “Best Home Schedule in College Football” stands between the red hot Cats, who ride the longest active winning streak among power conference teams at 8 games into 2018, and their first back-to-back winning regular seasons since doing it three straight from 2008 through 2010. While Pat Fitzgerald has brought Cats fans higher highs in the second half of his first 12 years on the job, reaching 10 wins 3 times, consistency (Justin Jackson notwithstanding) has not been the program’s forte.
One has to believe Fitz has learned the lesson of 2016, where the Cats returned almost everyone from the 10 win regular season of 2015, only to start sluggishly at home against Western Michigan and, gasp, Illinois State. It took a Herculean regular season from Austin Carr and a virtuoso Justin Jackson Pinstripe Bowl to eek out a 7-6 campaign. While the Las Vegas sportsbooks pegged NU for another 6-6 regular season, Fitzgerald would be on the end of the “fool me twice” axiom if he doesn’t get the Cats to 7-5, at a minimum.
Sorting NU’s schedule into three tiers of difficulty, from “easy peasy”, to “flip a coin”, to “ain’t gonna happen” is complicated by the fact that their arguably 3 toughest opponents all come to Evanston. The lone road game versus a ranked team is against Michigan State, a team they’ve beaten each of the last two years, and the last two times they’ve played in Spartan Stadium. In other words, no trips to Clemson or Alabama for NU in 2018.
The Easy Peasy’s
- Week 2: Duke at home. It takes some arrogance to treat Duke this way after their thorough domination of the Cats in Durham last year, but that butt-whooping only serves to make it more likely they will be getting NU’s best shot this time. This is year 4 of 4 in this annual P5 non-conference matchup of schools made for each other, before they take 2019 and ’20 off and resume in ‘21. The thought of NU dropping their home opener after what looks to be a strong start on the road in conference is too unlikely to resemble a coin-flip.
- Week 3: Akron at home. The only real question is whether this, or Illinois, is the Cats’ easiest game. Even a nightmare scenario of looking ahead to Michigan could be cured with a comeback starting as late as mid-3rd quarter. If Akron plays Nebraska tough in the opener, NU will have enough notice to avoid disaster.
- Week 7: Nebraska at home. This is on the fringe of a coin-flip, but NU is wise enough to beat up on Scott Frost before he gets settled in. The home team hasn’t won in this matchup since the Kellogg-Westerkamp hail mary in 2013, but it would take a season collapse the likes of NU’s 2013 for them not to win this one.
- Week 8: At Rutgers. NU may be facing the least intimidating 6-1 B1G team in history on October 20th. Rutgers has the most back-heavy schedule in all of college football. Their lowest ranked November opponent is #14 Michigan. It’s imperative that NU start their losing streak in October.
- Week 12: At Minnesota. It’s a long season, and a lot can change by mid-November, but Minnesota’s offense was just too putrid against quality competition in 2017 for me to fear a repeat of 2016, when they beat NU thoroughly at home. If things are going well for NU, they should have the finish line in sight and leave no room for a Gopher upset.
- Week 13: Illinois at home. Prove me wrong Lovie. Inject life into the Illini. I say it as a graduate of Champaign, having seen J. Leman and Rashard Mendenhall turn things around near instantaneously firsthand. It’s been done, but until it’s happening, run up the score Fitz. The Cats could always use more style points.
- Week 1: At Purdue. While I’m very confident NU will win, likely by 10+, it’s more of a gut feeling, and this game could easily be an ambush if NU lets the crowd get into it or the secondary loses focus. I’m of the belief Clayton Thorson is 95% healthy or better, and will be the starter Thursday night. The key to this game will be NU’s offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage against a Purdue defense seeking to replace key pieces from 2017. Some short throws to Nagel, Lees and Green, but a heavy dose of Jeremy Larkin should be expected. Maybe even John Moten can rediscover the magic of his career day in West Lafayette in 2016.
- Week 6: At Michigan State. It appears I’m more skeptical of Sparty than the average critic. Dantonio’s a very solid coach, and barring multiple upsets and injuries, MSU will be a 10-15 point favorite in this contest. I just don’t see MSU recreating the magic of 2015’s run to the playoff. The fact NU faces the Spartans a week before their season-defining Penn St-Michigan back-to-back opens the door to a look ahead trap scenario as well. NU will be the underdog, but this a very winnable game.
- Week 9: Wisconsin at home. Color me skeptical of the 2018 Badgers given the absurdly high expectations the national media has bestowed upon them. The last time UW was this high (#4) in the AP Preseason Poll was 2000, and the eventual 8-4 campaign’s derailment was started by none other than a Damien Anderson led NU team. I get that Jonathan Taylor is a stud and the line is so good they could probably run Hornibrook off-tackle for 4 yards a carry. But returning just 3 starters on defense is a big deal. Unless Hornibrook plays at his Orange Bowl level week-in week-out the margin of error isn’t there for a playoff a run through a schedule that includes Iowa, Michigan, NU, Penn State and Purdue, all on the road.
- Week 10: Notre Dame at home. Like the MSU game, NU comes into this matchup with a 2-game winning streak against the Irish. Similar to Fitzgerald at NU, Brian Kelly has had a difficult time backing up his 10 win seasons in South Bend, never doing better than an 8-4 regular season. This game may very well come down to the team who has more to play for by the time November 3rd rolls around. If NU has come through against even just one of Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, they should have enough wind at their back to give ND a very tough game.
- Week 11: At Iowa. Pat Fitzgerald’s notorious success against Iowa has been on display recently, winning each of the last 2 seasons to get to 7-5 versus the Hawkeyes all-time as a coach. It was especially ugly last year, winning 17-10 in OT. However, I’m bullish on Iowa this year thinking that their draw of Wisconsin and NU at home may provide the tiebreaker boost they need in the B1G West. An Iowa win is anything but a foregone conclusion though, just look at how the Cats turned their 2016 season around with a win there despite going in 1-3.
Ain’t Gonna Happen
- Week 5: Michigan at home. I don’t really think this is a game that is impossible to win, but at the same time I think there’s a 0.0% chance NU goes 12-0 in the regular season, so winning them all is fairly described as “ain’t gonna happen”. The problem, as brutally evidenced in the 2015 38-0 shutout, is that Michigan’s strengths are perfectly suited to beat Northwestern. They’re impossible to run against, so you have to throw, but NU lacks the over-the-top speed on the outside to open up anything underneath. On offense, Michigan doesn’t open themselves up to negative run plays, mainly operating between the tackles, forcing an undersized NU team to repeatedly stuff them and avoiding a situation where NU’s front 7 can be aggressive. Michigan has won 5 straight and 10 of 11 against the Cats since the instant super-classic 54-51 NU win in 2000 (aka “the Anthony Thomas fumble game”). But they won 19 straight before NU knocked them out in the Big House in 1995, the first of two straight Cats wins. So never say never.
If NU can manage to win 3 of 5 coin-flips, which I think they certainly can given that Purdue is really on the margin, that would take them to 9-3. Sweeping the divisional games and holding up at Rutgers just might be enough to get to Indianapolis. The clear next step for a program itching to take it.
For another perspective, here’s a look at our Publisher, Andrew Coppens, and his game-by-game breakdown of the Wildcats:
Northwestern Wildcats trying to get out of the wheel of mediocrity
The Northwestern Wildcats have reached a consistent level where they can compete for a bowl game and achieve some of their goals. When will they finally contend for a Big Ten title? That is still the question for this program.
The Northwestern Wildcats’ goal board is the same every year. On top is to win the College Football Playoff. Beneath that is to win a bowl game. Beneath that is to win a Big Ten title. Beneath, that the Big Ten West. And then the various goals to get better every day and do well academically and in the weight room.
The Wildcat Way, etc.
Many of those goals have seemed aspirational in the past. They were the direction the team wanted to move in and get to. They needed the tools — hello Ryan Fieldhouse — to get there. And they needed the results.
The Wildcats now have two 10-win seasons in the last three years. They have reached a level of consistency the program has never seen before, constantly graduating classes with the most wins in school history.
Northwestern’s general football progress is moving in the right direction. Things are constantly looking up for the program.
The Wildcats have the feeling they are on the precipice.
But it would not be Northwestern if there was not that constant feeling of dread. That feeling the team is on the precipice of collapse. For every 10-3 Gator Bowl season there are the two 5-7 seasons that followed where Northwestern failed to live up to its weighty expectations. Or for every 10-3 Outback Bowl season there is a frustrating 7-6 season that follows.
How will Northwestern follow this 10-3 iteration? One where their quarterback will start the season recovering from an ACL tear (unclear for August’s opener at Purdue) and they will be replacing their starting running back and all-time leading rusher?
One where Northwestern too will face an incredibly difficult schedule that features home games against Notre Dame, Michigan and Wisconsin. Getting back to 10-3 this year will be difficult. And, on top of that, Northwestern will have to avoid the slow starts that have plagued the last few seasons.
The Wildcats cannot afford losses to Duke like it did last year or <gasp> Western Michigan and Illinois State like two years ago. That was a big reason for that season’s ultimate disappointment.
Northwestern the last few years has been good enough to be a threat and put together solid seasons — with solid bowl games to follow (and two straight bowl wins). But the Wildcats have not ever been a threat to win the Big Ten West. Even with those 10-3 seasons on their ledger.
Last year, Northwestern had the early loss to Duke, but then lost to Wisconsin and Penn State in its first two Big Ten games. That took the team out of the running from the start. The Wildcats were never Big Ten West contenders last year unless Wisconsin seriously slipped up. Just like they were never contenders in the Big Ten West in 2015 after the Hawkeyes thrashed them at Ryan Field on their way to an undefeated regular season.
Where does this leave Northwestern this year? Where does that leave the team for the future?
The next two seasons feel like transition years. Northwestern has long relied on “perfect” seasons where veteran leaders at key positions align to have special seasons. That was certainly last year with Justin Jackson playing his senior year with several veterans on defense and Clayton Thorson as a junior quarterback.
Thorson is a senior this year and while Northwestern’s defense has reached a level of consistency in the past few seasons, it is a veteran group with experience all over. Next year’s team will not have the same kind of reliable talent — barring any surprise emerging players this year, which is very possible especially on defense.
Not even Hunter Johnson and his potential replacing Clayton Thorson would seemingly save the Wildcats from that realm of uncertainty with their roster and their future.
Northwestern’s future seems much brighter than it did a decade ago. Recruiting continues to go smoothly — see the recruitment of Hunter Johnson and the continuing emergence of young players like Samdup Miller and Paddy Fisher — and the new facilities will attract more eyes and attention from recruits considering the school.
That all seems to suggest Northwestern will see the results match on the field. The program should get better — getting rid of those repeated 5-7 seasons. Quickly the baseline for Northwestern is to make a bowl game. The Wildcats have already probably reached that level.
The question it feels facing the program is how it takes the next level and competes for a Big Ten title. How does the program become something more?
Everyone recognizes Northwestern is no longer a pushover. They are a team that will challenge every team in the conference for sure and be a threat to score a big bowl win. The Wildcats go into every game expecting to win. That is not something everyone could say when Pat Fitzgerald took over a decade ago.
That kind of progress should be celebrated. But it is not enough. The Wildcats now have to take that next step. They have to become true Big Ten threats.
That might be the tough thing to see this year with so many questions throughout the roster — at quarterback most of all, but even at running back as Jeremy Larkin takes over and in Northwestern’s usually strong secondary. The Wildcats will expect a bowl game again and to win that bowl game. How the program grows and what it does to surprise will be what everyone eagerly awaits.
At some point, Northwestern has to step off the wheel and make a run at the Big Ten title. It just might be a while for the pieces to align perfectly to do so.
Hunter Johnson Transfer: Seminal Moment of Fitzgerald Era
A 5-Star Response in the B1G West Arms Race
It started mere days after Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes destroyed the inaugural B1G West Champion, 2014 Wisconsin Badgers, 59-0. A showing so strong and persuasive it vaulted Ohio State the necessary spot into the Playoff Committee’s top four. Meyer didn’t even need his first, or second, quarterback to emphatically slay the rest of the B1G. Legends and Leaders were gone, east coast neophytes Rutgers and Maryland were in. The B1G West certainly looked like the easier route to Indianapolis, but to what end? Humiliation on the grandest stage?
Gary Andersen had had enough. By the end of the month both a division champ and all powerful Michigan had brought in new head coaches. In the three years that have followed, turnover at the head coaching position has struck every B1G West school except Iowa and Northwestern. Each year the hottest non-Power 5 coach climbs the rung to a B1G West vacancy, bringing the hunger of their CFP snub with them. Among the two veteran HC’s, Kirk Ferentz has continued to catch lightning in a bottle and a BCS-turned-New-Years-Six Bowl every 6-8 years, which has left NU the lone man out. Having not reached the top of the mountain, but firmly and justifiably committed to Pat Fitzgerald at the helm. Nobody does more with less. But what if he had more? 2019 now appears to be the start of that exam.
In getting 2017 5-Star quarterback Hunter Johnson of Brownsburg, Indiana by way of Clemson, not only do the Cats get a talent coveted on a scale they rarely, if ever, have had before (see Kyle Prater in 2012; Cats fans hope Johnson yields more wins), but the timing and confluence of it all is enough to crack even the thickest of cynics’ skin. Despite the objective inequity of the NCAA rules that require an undergrad transfer such as Johnson to sit out a year (though not lose any eligibility), if Clayton Thorson is healthy and near-100% by September 29th, when conference-plus-Notre-Dame season starts in earnest, having both on the roster healthy would border on wasteful.
Whether or not the fact that Johnson’s eligibility will start just as Thorson’s ends was pure serendipity or a key part of his decision is unknown (though Thorson courted Johnson on a recent visit, so it appears to be a joint effort in furtherance of NU stability), but the outcome is the same. NU sits with two 10-win seasons in their last three, with a 7-win bowl campaign between them. If ever a time for a team leader who has experience playing for a College Football Playoff team, who joined the reigning national champs straight out of high school, to step in, see the differences between the elite level of Clemson and this fledgling B1G West contender, this is it. NU has never been closer.
Johnson knows he won’t be surrounded by the same caliber of playmakers he had at Clemson, but he chose to come to Evanston nevertheless. This could be seen as a sign of confidence that he doesn’t need Sammy Watkins or Mike Williams to move an offense down the field. In what now looks like a hint at what was to come, NU landed a commitment from 2019 3-star WR Bryce Kirtz who played with Johnson in high school as a sophomore. Johnson came to lead NU, not just chase playing time.
The decision should also be seen as a validation of the athletic department’s investment in elite facilities. NU set college sports social media abuzz when they unveiled the majestic new Ryan Fieldhouse right on the shores of Lake Michigan in April. If NU is to turn the corner and no longer be looking up at Wisconsin year-in year-out, the world-class facility will be seen as a turning point. NU has had academics, they’ve had location, and now they have a jewel that really strikes a chord with the athletes who will be spending more time there than anyone. Fitz has needed something to push the talent level up to a point where consistently threatening, and occasionally eclipsing, Wisconsin is a realistic expectation. The allure of Ryan Fieldhouse with big names backing it up right away, just might be what it took.
Northwestern Wildcats return to Wrigley Field a much different program
The Northwestern Wildcats’ first trip to Wrigley Field was the start of a marketing ploy. Their next trip in 2020 will be for a much bigger prize and with much higher stakes.
When the Northwestern Wildcats first came to Wrigley Field in 2010 to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini, they were a program looking for attention.
New athletic director Jim Phillips had boldly declared the Wildcats as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and this was their way to begin reaching out to their neighbors to the south.
Never mind that much of the stadium was orange and blue for the opponent. Never mind that luck did not favor Northwestern as Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles the week before, leaving the team to use a fresh starter in the game. Also never mind that Wrigley Field was not technically safe for football, forcing the teams to use only one end zone.
What seemed to matter more was that purple scoreboard behind the College GameDay crew for a battle of teams struggling to make a bowl game that year (they both did with Northwestern debuting Kain Colter in a TicketCity Bowl loss to Texas Tech).
This was a publicity stunt — as all these novelty neutral site games are — but one with a specific purpose.
First to show the nation on College GameDay on the field that Northwestern football was no longer a pushover (that mission was not accomplished that Saturday afternoon). The second, to plant that literal flag in Chicago and build a relationship with the city and one of its most beloved sports icons.
Northwestern left the field that day maybe a bit premature to lay claim to the city. But the team and the program was always plotting a return for football (since then both baseball and lacrosse have played games on Wrigley Field).
The Wildcats a decade later are very different. A team that is more competitive and thinking of greater things. This is a program ready to stake claim to Chicago in a very real way.
Northwestern will get that opportunity, likely again in the spotlight, when the team takes on Wisconsin at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020.
That game figures to be a critical one in the Big Ten West between two fo the division’s most consistent teams. With teh spotlight on, Northwestern hopes this will be a marquee game and, of course, a victory that the program can hang its hat on while playing on a big stage.
Of course, 2020 is still very far away. The Wildcats and Badgers will recycle their rosters as every college team will.
By that point, Northwestern will be completely moved in to Ryan Fieldhouse for a few years. Recruits will have gone through that building and the team’s new training facilities not with hard hats on but with helmets on actually seeing the team practice in the lakeside facility.
Northwestern hopes this facility — the same one Yahoo! Sports called the best facility in college football — will tip the scales in recruiting. Northwestern has knocked on the door of competitiveness for several years with great recruiting. Now they hope they have a true advantage to push them over the edge.
The Wildcats have always had to create their own publicity. Students are not exactly passionate sports fans — although that part of campus culture has grown considerably in the last decade-plus. And the team does not have the huge alumni base. There will be a lot of red in Wrigley Field that Saturday afternoon.
The team though wants to use this stage it created to showcase itself all over again.
Back in 2010, the program was still experiencing sustained success for the first time. The Wildcats had not yet won a bowl game (not since 1949) and going to bowl games in consecutive years was novel. Winning the Big Ten West was a marketing scheme, not an achievable goal.
Chicago’s Big Ten Team was aspirational.
Now that has all changed. The facilities are in place. Northwestern has three bowl wins since 2012 and a few 10-win seasons to boot. The team has real championship aspirations almost every year. And that will be the case when they had to Wrigley.
As they step onto that historic field, Northwestern will truly be playing to become Chicago’s Big Ten Team. And a win on that day will catapult the program to new heights.
This trip will be a much bigger test for the program and potentially a whole lot more rewarding.