On Oct. 5, 2013, Northwestern lost to Ohio State. That game would trigger the meltdown. NU lost six of its next seven. And after rallying to save its latest recruiting class, they entered the season with middling expectations. They lost their best receiver and their All-American, and then the slide continued. They opened with brutal losses to Cal and Northern Illinois — putting Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall under immense scrutiny. Again, with no one expecting much, the 1-2 Wildcats traveled to Penn State hoping for something good, at long last.
That’s a long paragraph, because the suffering ran long. But with all of the painful injuries, close losses, and difficult questions, Northwestern finally found its way back. Don’t expect them to return again.
The Wildcats dominated Penn State 29-6 on Saturday. This was hardly an outlier and fluke. Everyone from Walker and Watkins to Siemian and Smith contributed to the win. I don’t like to use the word “identity” in referring to teams, but this is the closest I’ll come. They swarmed to the ball. They made Christian Hackenberg look like anything but a Heisman contender. They made the catches and rushes that you need to win. Before, they were destined for their second straight miserable season. Now, after a “statement” win, the next eight games are reason for excitement.
Pat Fitzgerald loves to criticize the media for criticizing him. But you want to shut us up? Win big games. He did that with flair, beating up on the awful James Franklin for all four quarters. You had to love the inspiration. He failed on the fake field goal attempt — but it set the tone. NU played the game smart, played to win and avoided mistakes that would cost it other games. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz can put the game itself on his résumé. Better: the team played perfectly with the lead. The outcome was never really in doubt.
Oh, and also, remember all the hype about recruiting? I’ve tried to talk about that for two and a half years. Here they come — part of the process of recruiting to find depth. There was redshirt freshman Anthony Walker, stepping in for senior Collin Ellis, playing the game of his life and sealing the game with a pick-six. There was true freshman Xavier Washington — a late and under-recruited find — forcing a Hackenberg fumble. There was sophomore Matthew Harris, who left with an injury but still impacted the game as he tends to do. There’s always Justin Jackson. Part of the reason that this is sustainable lies in the improved recruiting. For his 2013, 2014 and now 2015 classes, Fitzgerald found more elite talent. As that group develops, Northwestern football will continue to improve.
Even the offense looked “okay.” That’s what they need. Trevor had one excellent quarter and three pretty good quarters. He made several nice early throws, tossed only one pick and managed the lead well. They failed to finish a number of drives, but Siemian’s 256 passing yards were impressive. Dan Vitale, the streaky superback, grabbed seven passes for 113 yards. Tony Jones absorbed much of the Nittany Lions’ attention. The team also used Jackson, Treyvon Green and Warren Long. It’s one of their major strengths moving forward. This was all conservative and effective — something they can do more in the future.
Christian Hackenberg’s final line: 22-for-45, 216 yards and one interception. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten and NU held him to 4.8 yards per attempt. They all made the necessary plays. Nick VanHoose turned around with the team, making another critical pass deflection on fourth down. Anthony Walker was the most valuable player. Drew Smith and Dean Lowry made plays in part of the balanced team effort. Once you experience winning, and get what it feels like, you can turn around your season. And that happened tonight.
Some columns are less based on opinion and more based on observation. There aren’t too many hyperbolic points to make. Going down the roster, and through the tape, NU discovered its “identity” (sorry) and useful depth. If this were some sloppy 14-10 win, everything would be different. But for the first time in forever — arguably since ‘Cuse last year — they put it all together.
Now at 1-0 in the conference, there are opportunities. NU benefits from the brutal Big Ten, and an especially easy schedule. Some of their easier games include Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue and Illinois — making 5-3 a now reasonable mark. Last year, the team was all talk and hypotheticals. We finally have proof that NU can take on good opponents, even on the road, and come out successful. We can afford to be optimistic.
And we can take the game for what it’s worth. And give credit where credit is due. Regardless of future results, you might as well remember the 29-6 road beatdown of Penn State. With some dissent, I rank this the team’s best win since Nebraska in 2011. Penn State might not be as strong as other opponents since then, but NU faced the difficult task of proving itself and learning how to win on the fly. They faced an excellent quarterback, which would have been nearly impossible in the past. They went to Penn State on homecoming to face a 4-0 team and left after damaging their spirits.
Earn it, Fitz. When Northwestern lost, as they have so often, they have to own it. When Northwestern wins, like today, you can deal with the praise.
Expect it a lot more, Northwestern. It feels like the 2014 season just started.