As the calendar turned from September to October last season, there weren't many Big Ten fan bases that had more to be excited about than Northwestern. Michigan had just survived two close calls, Michigan State was still looking in earnest for its offense, and Wisconsin got jobbed out in the desert. With the exception of still-on-a-win-streak Ohio State, the Wildcats were the happiest folks around.
But good feelings are always in short supply as football seasons progress, and Northwestern was walking into something it couldn't imagine.
First, while still riding high, Ohio State came to town for a prime time game against Northwestern — one of the best chances for the Buckeyes to lose in the regular season according to most pundits. It was a back and forth game throughout that stayed close near the end. Ultimately, Northwestern didn't have enough defense or luck to overcome Ohio State. Loss number one.
A week later there was talk of a let-down game. Northwestern had to make the trek north to Wisconsin after the gut wrenching loss to OSU. It felt like it could get ugly. It did. Loss number two.
It wasn't until the third weekend of October when the wheels truly felt like they were coming off. This time it was a home game against Minnesota. The same Minnesota team that had just lost by double digits to Michigan and Iowa (both teams with issues of their own). Loss number three, with an exclamation point.
The next week was a overtime loss to Iowa after tying the game in the second half in a ten-point comeback. Loss number four.
It couldn't be any worse, right? Wrong. A Nebraska hail mary puts Northwestern away the next week, followed by the quickest, most perfectly executed last second field goal attempt to send the game against Michigan to overtime where the Cats would lose after three extra sessiosn. Losses five and six. Check and check.
The game against Michigan State, number seven in a row loss-wise for Northwestern, almost seemed academic at that point in the season. Loss number seven before it started.
Recounting all of these losses isn't about piling on. Rather, it is an honest look at a complete and utter collapse by one of the conference front runners. Did it have to be that way? No, not at all. Both Michigan and Nebraska needed miracle plays at the end of regulation to beat the Cats while Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State were all close games down the stretch. Even the blowouts against Michigan State and Wisconsin are partially explainable by the proximity of those games to gut wrenching losses. Hangovers to be sure.
Northwestern has been knocking on the door for a while. The team has done all it can to push itself up into the Big Ten title discussion without actually breaking through. In fact, the title hopes of the gridiron Wildcats look to be the same as the NCAA hopes of the hardwood Iowa Hawkeyes. This is always the year.
Northwestern still looks the part, but last season isn't the first in which the team has struggled to close out games. With Michigan State and Ohio State pushed to the opposite division, Northwestern just lost two of its biggest impediments in a conference title run (crossover games against Michigan and Penn State are fortunate as neither team looks to be all that great).
But it isn't as simple as saying "Northwestern needs to play better in crunch time". That is a cop out answer that is too vague. The bigger issue last year was an offense that took too long to get going (scoring less than 20 in five of those seven losses) and a defense that wilted late. That, like so many other things Michigan fans are used to seeing, is a sign that while the team has talent, it doesn't have enough, that constant execution is lacking throughout the game, and that sometimes bad things happen and you just have to shake your head, pick yourself up, and try to work around it.
Northwestern limped through its worst case scenario a season ago. How far the other way can Pat Fitzgerald take his team? Judging by the past few years of Northwestern football, a few plays this fall are going to have a large affect on the answer to that question.