Knocking on the door

Northwestern lost a heartbreaker Saturday, but there were plenty of positive takeaways, writes Steven Goldstein.

The clock hit zero, and the first thing I did was check Twitter. As expected, a lot of jabs at the Wildcats' inability to win the big game, a lot about Northwestern's documented struggles while playing with the lead and scattered comments about the final play providing a terrible back door cover on the spread.

I was in the same camp; stunned at the Cats' unimaginative gut runs on the two biggest plays of the night, deflated over another late-game loss in primetime. Then I checked Facebook.

Not one negative word on my news feed. Instead, I was met with a flood of posts from the student body, which had its best showing I've ever seen Saturday. Northwestern's students were unabashedly proud of their team.

I missed the last shuttle leaving Ryan Field and started walking down Central. With time to think everything over, I couldn't help but realize how many positives could be taken from the 40-30 loss to Ohio State. Before kickoff, I told everyone I knew not to get their hopes up, and to expect a blowout by the third quarter. I figured Northwestern wouldn't lead beyond halftime, and even Urban Meyer himself couldn't have convinced me that the Wildcat defense would handily control Braxton Miller. Northwestern should have beaten the fourth-ranked team in the country. It hurts, but it's also damn impressive.

Coming into Saturday, we hadn't seen the Cats play in two weeks. Factoring in inconsistent performances against Western Michigan and Maine, we really hadn't seen the Cats play well in a month. Here's what we saw in the biggest regular season game in program history:

— We saw Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian go a combined 17 for their first 19, and 25 of 31 by the end of the night. The passing game was sharp, even in the face of constant pressure, and wasn't afraid to take shots downfield against the best defense it's faced all season. Four NU players notched receptions of 22 yards or more, including the 41-yard dump off to Venric Mark that ended in a statement stiff arm and the 67-yard dash from Rashad Lawrence that completely swung the momentum of the game. Colter didn't miss a pass, and more impressively, Siemian responded from a bad interception–one that set up a go-ahead Buckeyes score–by aggressively targeting Lawrence and later Cameron Dickerson. And it all happened in spite of a running game that hobbled to 2.2 yards per carry.

— We saw Northwestern force three turnovers off one of the most efficient and well-coached teams in the country. Braxton Miller hadn't fumbled all season heading into Saturday night, and the Wildcat front seven forced two. Miller was also drilled on an interception to Chi Chi Ariguzo. Northwestern won the turnover battle against a team that had a +6 turnover margin through five games.

— We saw the maligned Wildcat secondary allow only 203 passing yards and no touchdowns. After the shaky first series, Northwestern gave up just two completions for more than 15 yards. Nick VanHoose was aggressive and Matthew Harris was steady. The Cats were sound over the top and controlled one of the best quarterbacks in college football, and they did it with a true freshman cornerback in the first meaningful playing time of his career.

— We saw Northwestern's student section come out in full force, and Northwestern's football team rise to the challenge of hosting ESPN all weekend and the Big Ten's only national title contender Saturday night. Ryan Field was electric, and the Wildcats themselves were impressively disciplined. Both can be summed up on OSU's fake punt call in the second quarter. A game as jittery and hyped as Saturday's could've easily left the Cats over-excited and out of position. Instead, NU sniffed it out, erupted on the sidelines like I've never heard before, and forcefully took the game's momentum. "We didn't play this game for the media," Damien Proby said after the game. "We played this game for ourselves and we wanted to prove something to ourselves."

There were, of course, the negatives. The inability to run the ball and stop the run on the other side. The lack of pressure on Miller on many passing downs, and the constant pressure in Siemian's face. The final score.

But we know a whole lot more about this team as it continues its conference schedule. For the most part, we know very good things. There's no moral victories, says Pat Fitzgerald, but to say this was nothing but a loss would be missing the point of this whole weekend.

"We're close. We're knocking on the door, we just have to knock that bad boy down," Fitz said in the postgame press conference. Frustrating as it was, that was a mighty loud knock.

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