When the Wildcats broke their five-game losing streak Saturday at Indiana, it was evident that this wasn't just a pad for the win-loss record, it was the release of a burden and it gave the Wildcats a new sense of confidence heading forward.
"We were ecstatic," superback Drake Dunsmore said. "The locker room was going crazy, the coaches had smiles on their faces. This is where we needed to be. We needed to get this win."
Did they ever.
After five weeks of inconsistency, NU finally put a complete game—well, a complete offensive game—together.
Nevermind that this was Indiana, a team with a 1-8 record that has yet to beat anyone not named South Carolina State. Nevermind that NU defense allowed a true freshman quarterback and an average running back run all over it. Nevermind that the defense allowed 39 points to an offense that is still trying to find its identity.
At least for now, none of those stats matter. Saturday was purely about finding a way to win and regaining momentum, and in that respect the Wildcats certainly succeeded.
"We have a 24-hour rule where we're going to enjoy the win," running back Jason Schmidt said. "It's been awhile."
However, after 24 hours, the Wildcats will need to face the grim reality of their current situation—they're 3-5 and will need to upset either No. 10 Nebraska or No. 17 Michigan State in order to make a bowl game.
Despite the tall order ahead, there was optimism abound after the win in Bloomington, and there was a sense that, just maybe, this team can get it done.
The defense is bad, and frankly, it isn't going to get any better. The rush defense was horrendous and basic fundamentals like tackling are lacking. That's not indicative of a championship football team and it's why this team will be lucky to play in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald called out his defense after the game, finally admitting that something needs to change besides the "lack of execution."
"It's not like a change of personnel is going to be a big deal because we're the No. 1 defense in the Big Ten," he said. "If it's personnel, we'll change. If it's schematic, we'll change."
But we knew all along that the offense would need to carry this team, and on Saturday, the unit finally put together a complete performance in one of the most impressive offensive performances in the conference this season.
The Wildcats averaged 7.9 yards per play, had 616 yards of total offense, and didn't punt until the fourth quarter. The quarterbacks threw a combined five touchdown passes and Dunsmore had an NU-record four receiving touchdowns.
"I thought that was one of the more efficient games our offense has had since I've been head coach," Fitzgerald said. "I think we executed pretty flawlessly."
Perhaps Schmidt put it better—"You guys saw it; we rolled."
With the defense still struggling—don't expect any changes to help much—the offense will have to continue to roll if NU wants to achieve its goal of bowl eligibility, and that starts next Saturday in Lincoln.
If Tre Roberson and Stephen Houston could run all over the Wildcats defense, Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead can do even better. That means the NU offense will need to be as efficient as it has ever been in order to come away with a win.
"We know what the next week brings and what the rest of the season is, too," Schmidt said.
In other words, the rest of a season is crunch time, and as Fitzgerald said, the rest of the season has to be "pretty much flawless."
On paper, NU shouldn't beat Nebraska and it shouldn't make a bowl game. However, there's a confidence surrounding the offense that had been missing in the first seven games of the season.
"It feels great getting a win and I feel like this can propel us into the next four or five games and start getting us on a win streak," said quarterback/running back/wide receiver Kain Colter—that's how he was introduced at the press conference—who added that he wanted to go for 60 points against the Hoosiers.
That's the kind of swagger that has been missing from this offense. The talent was always there, but now NU seems to finally have the winner's mentality that it needed so badly.
It may be too late, but if the Wildcats end up playing in December, we'll look back on October 29 in Bloomington as the turning point. Yes, it was only Indiana, but NU finally showed that it may have the most dynamic offense in the Big Ten, which is what we had been waiting to see all year.
Things only get harder from here, but suddenly bowl eligibility doesn't seem so impossible after all.
"Once we put everything together and have a complete game, we're going to be really good," Colter said.
Next Saturday in Lincoln would be an excellent place to start.