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The Big Ten in Review: Northwestern


This is a continuance of the post-2012 series, where we look at other Big Ten teams (largely to get you up to speed, if all you happen to follow is Michigan).

Previously in this series: Illinois and Minnesota.

This time around, we're reviewing the Northwestern Wildcats.

General Synopsis:

It took Pat Fitzgerald five years to do it, but the Northwestern Wildcats finally won a bowl game! It was their first in 64 years (when they won the 1949 Rose Bowl). That's quite a drought.

Fitzgerald's Wildcats also finished the season ultimately with 10 wins, making 2012 arguably Northwestern's best run since Gary Barnett's magical 10-2 season in 1995. The 2012 Wildcats started the season undefeated at 5-0, and its two opening victories against Syracuse and Vanderbilt proved to be a huge difference in creating momentum that would lead to Northwestern's best season in years.

Although they only lost three games, the 2012 Wildcats were notoriously close in each of them and nearly defeated Michigan if not for a last-minute rally by the Wolverines, which pushed the game into overtime, where Michigan outlasted Northwestern. They also lost to Penn State and Nebraska.

The bigger story, however, is not that Northwestern won 9 games in the regular season (a very impressive record considering the program's strict admission policy for athletes and general lack of funding to revenue sports), but that Pat Fitzgerald was finally able to bring Northwestern the bowl win they've been desperately wanting for generations.

Fitzgerald had been to consecutive bowl games for four years prior to 2012, but hadn't won one, prompting a recurring joke that he had to "get the bowl monkey off his back." In 2012 (technically January 2013), he finally did.

Expectations Coming In:

Not... great. The Wildcat faithful were chiefly concerned with the defense and the team's overall ability to lose tight games at the end--the frequent phrase used in sports here is "not finish." While four consecutive bowl appearances might have been generally elevated fan expectations to desire a fifth, the seemingly ever-lasting bowl drought and inability to truly "break-through," especially since the program has seen six years under Fitzgerald, made the more cynical Wildcat fans question if this was even a bowl team.

Best Moment of 2012:

Without a doubt, it is the bowl win over Mississippi State (although this technically happened in 2013, but who the F cares, because Northwestern won a bowl game!!), an event so glorious to the Wildcat nation, they still sing about it today.

And they probably will for years to come.

To give you a sense of how big this win was, here's a snippet of a fan post from Sippin' on Purple, which recaps the feelings a Northwestern fan had in the game's final seconds:

What was going on, here? The Wildcats easily left at least a minute of gametime on the clock, and now out of the timeout, Siemian throws an incomplete pass to stop the clock again. It would have been the most Northwestern way to lose, blowing a 14-point lead thanks to terrible time management. Fans pleaded with Fitz to run the damn ball and take time off the clock.

The message seemed to be heard, as NU finally started milking some time. The Wildcats would punt the ball back to MSU with 2:46 left, and it was "Hold on to your butts" time for NU fans. No quick scores, was all I was hoping for. Make 'em earn it. I told my wife, "A 14-point game should not be this emotionally draining. Especially in the Gator Bowl, of all meaningless games."

But then came the defensive stand of all defensive stands. On 1st down, Tyler Scott blows through a double team and sacks Russell. On 2nd down, MSU derps the playcall with an RB draw that gains nothing. On 3rd and 20, a dropped pass. On 4th down, after hanging around the pocket for what felt like forever, Russell finally gets dragged down by shoulda-been-MVP Quentin Williams for another sack. Turnover on downs, and the NU side of the stadium was in pandemonium.

Good for you, Northwestern. Enjoy this.

Worst Moment of 2012:

This is a tough one, especially today, because all that really matters to Northwestern fans is that they won 10 games, including a bowl, which just happened to be a New Year's Day bowl, so things are looking up.

Obviously if we look at the Northwestern's season from a distance we're able to see that the low points of the year clearly came from Northwestern's three losses. However, if I had to pick one, I'd say it would have to be the loss to Nebraska. The Wildcats led the game for three quarters, by a 12-point lead, going into the final minutes, and the Cornhuskers would have to stage a miraculous 13-point comeback.

That's exactly what they did. They won by one point. And it was on Northwestern's home turf. That one definitely had to sting. (Although, to be fair, Northwestern isn't known for having a definitive home field advantage, since most of their students prefer studying over going to football games.)

The Nebraska game was probably the worst of Northwestern's losses, which were all strikingly similar. The Wildcats were competitive but just couldn't seem to last (or finish) the entire 60 minutes of the game. Those performances prompted the jaded fan base to question every week if Northwestern could win the upcoming game. It wasn't until the bowl win over Mississippi State that some warm and fuzzies started getting passed around.

Expectations Going Forward:

Northwestern was one of two Big Ten teams to win their bowl game in the 2012 post-season, so needless to say the Wildcat faithful are flying pretty high right now, as well they should be. The bowl win alone was a huge step forward in the right direction for the program.

Although Northwestern fans probably already know this, but it deserves reiterating: Pat Fitzgerald isn't going anywhere. I know this probably isn't news to anyone, but it's important when gauging expectations to remember that the guy that built probably the Big Ten's best rising star is staying right where he is and where he wants to be.

So, given that, expectations are... evolving somewhat. They will always be characteristically low at Northwestern, which gained a reputation for being the Big Ten's doormat for the past forty years, but they're starting to shake off that reputation for one that likes to sneak up behind you.

For 2013 Northwestern keeps all its playmakers that took them to 10 wins in 2012: Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Trevor Siemian, et al. are all coming back. Colter and Siemian are trading reps at quarterback, and Mark is a dangerous punt returner and running back. The presence of those guys (along with the same coaching staff) should mean that fans will expect the Wildcats to at least make another bowl appearance.

And possibly more? The Wildcats were one win away this year from possibly being in a BCS bowl. Although hindsight tells us that it was probably better that they faced the opponent they did. No point in playing in a high profile, BCS bowl game if you're not ready for it. (Yes, that's a jab at Notre Dame.)

Will the Wildcats be ready for bigger stages in the upcoming season? Hard to say. They're definitely the Big Ten's scrappiest "don't-count-us-out" team, which fits Pat Fitzgerald's personality perfectly. He's said that he will not stop until he makes a return to trip to Pasadena. Wildcat fans are hoping he won't be saying that forever.

Fitzgerald has shown that he didn't peak in 2008, when Northwestern went a surprising 9-3 but lost the Alamo Bowl. Northwestern could be the conference's best program on the rise, although they'll have to seriously step it up in recruiting if they want to eventually overtake programs like Ohio State and Michigan. Or they could do what they've always done, and scrap their way to the top.

I'm sure Pat Fitzgerald has no problem with that.