For a long time, the program has been marked by losses; a great academic school that couldn't compete with the powerhouses of the Big Ten and shouldn't be expected to; a fun team that could win every once in a while when it wasn't supposed to.
The 2012 Wildcats are a vastly different version.
The offensive line is experienced and strong. The team has a running back two good games away from 1000 yards and a quarterback whose zone read skills can make any defender look like a high-school player.
The defense, often at the center of blame for last year's losses, has allowed an average of 22 points per game, leading the squad when the offense faltered. Penn State was the only slip, but the unit was on the field for nearly 40 minutes of play.
There are plenty of negatives to take away from the Minnesota game – poor play calling, an awkward dual-quarterback style that left the ‘Cats struggling on every third down, a game plan that led to just 67 yards passing. But a good team is one that gets it done and pulls out a win despite playing a horrible game.
How often does it happen in college football, a good team taking on a not-as-good team who competes, makes some plays, gives them a tough game, but falls short? This week alone, No. 4 Florida only beat Vanderbilt by 14 (NU beat them by 10), No. 6 Kansas State won by six against Iowa State, No. 8 Ohio State won by three. Undefeated Louisville barely beat Pittsburgh. All on the road.
Northwestern did exactly what Kansas State, Florida and Ohio State did – took a bad game (admittedly, it was just Ohio State's defense that was bad) and fought for a win. Gritty, ugly, hard to watch, but a win nonetheless.
Or, as Pat Fitzgerald put it after the game: "We're not going to be a thing of beauty … We're too young. We've got to find a way to win."
Fitzgerald has said it often this season: his team has yet to put together a full 60 minutes of three-phase football.
Last season, Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl despite back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. Three years ago, the Pasadena-bound Ohio State Buckeyes, the Big Ten's last Rose Bowl winner, lost on the road to a less-than-average Purdue team.
Those teams lost games but rallied for excellent seasons. Northwestern lost to Penn State, but the Wildcats showed their toughness against Minnesota. The mark of a good team is not one that slips by against lesser foes – it is one that comes together against the top opponents, one that lives for big games and brings it all.
Four games in which the Wildcats, whether or not they are the favorites, can certainly come out with a win. If Venric Mark stays hot, Kain Colter finds a rhythm, the defense stands strong and the game plans improve, Northwestern could be the most talented team in the conference. And that's not to mention the best wide receivers in the Big Ten, who have been all-but forgotten this year.
Will it be easy? No. Will NU stumble? It's very possible. Can the ‘Cats still find their way to Indianapolis despite two very sub-par performances in the past two weeks? Absolutely.
For the past six years, Northwestern has been a program on the verge of a breakthrough, but has constantly come up short. So far this season, NU has flipped the script, going 6-1, hitting the rankings, and winning close games with big plays when it matters most.
Will the new script carry into the most important four-game stretch NU has seen since the mid-‘90s? Your guess is as good as any.
But buckle up. Things could get wild.