Cardiac Credentials

Saturday's win over Iowa proved that -- like the 1996 and 2004 teams that came before them -- this season's Wildcats are deserving of the Cardiac Cats label. Inside, Purple Reign looks at the cardiac credentials of the '09 squad compared to NU's other Cardiac Cats, and compared to other '09 Big Ten teams.

It's hard to say exactly when it started – the precise moment when it was kosher to dust off the "Cardiac Cats" moniker and slap in on the 2009 incarnation of the Northwestern Wildcats.

Maybe it was only this week, after Northwestern's surprising (but not utterly shocking) win over Iowa. There were surely some Wildcat hearts aflutter during that one. Iowa, after all, scored after a matter of seconds, plus NU's quarterback was gimpy, plus it was on the road, plus the Hawkeyes had that whole Destiny thing working in their favor. Get yourself in a one-score tangle with a team toting as much fairy-dust as the Hawkeyes, and you usually don't win. Unless, of course, you're the Cardiac Cats.

Maybe, though, it was appropriate to throw Cardiac in front of Cats before the Iowa game. Like after NU's rousing 29-28 win over Indiana, a game that featured a 25-point comeback.

But you know, it could have been even earlier. Like after the Wildcats' Week 5 win over Purdue, a game that featured an 18-point comeback and a last-second goal-line stand that thwarted the Boilermakers' game-winning score.

Come to think of it, it could have been before that. What about that Eastern Michigan game – you know, the one where first-year field goal kicker Stephen Demos split the uprights with a last-second field goal to down the pesky Eagles.

And heck, Syracuse beat NU on a last-second field goal of its own, so even one of the losses was a heart-stopper.

All of this got Purple Reign to thinking about a few things. First off, just how Cardiac is this Cats team compared to the outfits that gave birth to the nickname, namely the 1996 squad (five wins by four points or less) and the 2004 squad (four overtimes in 11 regular-season games)?

Second, how does NU's 2009 season compare to the rest of the Big Ten on the irregular heartbeat scale? As everyone knows, Iowa has had quite a nutty season itself: a TD at Michigan State with 0:00 left, a huge comeback against Indiana, a game-saving blocked field goal against Northern Iowa, etc. Plus the Big Ten has eight teams with at least three conference wins. And one of the three that doesn't, Illinois, is on a two-game winning streak. And another one, Indiana, has lost three conferences games by three points or less. So there is some parity in the conference this season, and parity usually breeds close games.

So Purple Reign culled through the schedules to see if Northwestern's heart-stopping season is (a) as heart-stopping as past heart-stopping NU campaigns, and (b) if other Big Ten fans are shaving as many years off their life expectancy as each week.

First off, how about 2009 NU versus 1996 NU and 2004 NU. Obviously those other Wildcat teams had a propensity for drama. In 1996, you'll remember, NU lost the season-opener by one point to Wake Forest. And after a few easy non-conference wins in September, October featured:

A one-point, 17-16 win over No. 20 Michigan. That game featured a last-second field goal and 16-point fourth-quarter comeback. NU converted three third-and-longs and a fourth-and-nine on the game-winning drive.

A two-point win at Minnesota. Northwestern took a 24-3 lead into halftime before the Gophers stormed back. A failed two-point conversion represented the winning margin in the 26-24 win. Darnell Autry had a ludicrous 41 carries for 189 yards.

A four-point, 34-30 win over Wisconsin. The Badgers were up 30-20 before allowing two late NU's touchdowns. Wisconsin was killing the clock when a curious running call led to a Ron Dayne fumble, which let NU score in the waning moments.

A three-point, 27-24 win over Illinois. This was the third straight week that NU scored the winning points in the final minute-or-so (the winning TD came with 1:02 left).

Again, that was all in one month.

And then, of course, there was the weekly foray into overtime back in 2004. It started in Week 1, when NU lost a double-overtime, 48-45 thriller to TCU. NU trailed by 14 at halftime, scored 17 in the third and 14 more in the fourth (but none in overtime).

October was again a nutty month. The first two games were overtime victories, one against Ohio State and another against Indiana. Then there was another OT win over Illinois to round out the regular season. (Interestingly, even NU's non-OT games were compelling – a three-point win over Kansas, a three-point win over Purdue, a seven-point win over Penn State.)

The following are charts that try to put a numeric value to the drama of the Cardiac Cats. There are four different categories used to try to quantify teams' flare for the dramatic. We'll call it the Cardiac Count.

* First off is the average margin of the teams' games. This column makes no delineation between wins and losses. A five-point loss and a 10 point win would add up to 15 points, and the averaged margin of those two would be 7.5.

* The second column is similar, but it takes out the teams' biggest blowout – win or loss – of the season. So for this year's NU team, the 33-point win against Towson basically never happened. And in 2004, the 24-point loss to Minnesota never happened. This helps eliminate outliers that can skew our picture of just how dramatic these teams' average victories were.

* The third column is the average margin of victory, minus the biggest blowout. Again, games like Towson skew the fact that this NU team has been winning by whiskers most weeks. And when you look at the margins of victory – six points against Purdue, seven points against Iowa, three points against Eastern Michigan – it doesn't do justice to have some 30-plus-point win against a scrubby team as part of the equation.

* The final column is an attempt to see if the teams are LOSING in dramatic fashion, as well. That was an add-on column because, really, the Cardiac Cats nickname was born of dramatic wins, not dramatic losses. Still, Purple Reign was curious if there were some Big Ten outfits whose margin of defeat was minute.

Team Avg. Margin Avg. Margin w/o biggest blowout Avg. Margin in Ws w/o biggest W Avg. Margin in losses
2009 NU 10.5 8 5.4 10.1
2004 NU 9.4 7.9 5.4 13.3
1996 NU 12.5 11.1 9.6 15.3

So, as you can see, through 10 games this season Cats have been comparatively nerve-racking. The average margin of victory minus the biggest blowout – 5.4 points – is the same as it was back in the overtime-riddled 2004 campaign. And the average margin without the biggest blowout – wins and losses – is 8.0 points this season, a negligible difference from the 7.9 in 2004.

Interestingly, the 1996 squad – the one that truly inspired the Cardiac Cats nickname – doesn't have the "stats" you may expect. That's because, upon further review, there weren't that many nail-biters outside of October. Now, that month was a hoot. Four wins, with the largest margin of victory being four points. FOUR! That's incredible, no doubt about it. But unlike this season, there were a bunch of duds: an 18-point win against Indiana (compared to, say, this season's one-point win over IU); a 27-point win over Iowa (seven points this season); two non-conference victories that came by an average of 22.5 points. The average non-con victory this season: 15.3 points. And that includes the 33-point Towson beating. Sans that bloodbath, the non-con margin of victory was 6.5 points.

So as far as this season's squad compares to previous ones, it's as dramatic as ever. Now, there haven't been three straight weeks of fourth-quarter comebacks like in '96. And there haven't been any overtime games like in '04. But the consistently gut-wrenching wins have made this season as interesting/excruciating as any in the past 15 years.

Now, what about the Big Ten at large? Again, this is a pretty balanced league this season. Northwestern just downed the conference leader, Iowa, which now travels to Ohio State, which is poised to claim a share of the conference crown after it pounded Penn State last weekend in Happy Valley. And Penn State, of course, recently handled Northwestern. That sort of circular logic isn't worth a ton – just proof that the Big Ten has at least some balance.

Here is the same chart for the rest of the conference, in order from least-to-most dramatic (at least according to average margin). Can you guess which two teams have the narrowest point margin?

Team Avg. Margin Avg. Margin – biggest blowout Avg. Margin in Ws – biggest W Avg. Margin in losses
PSU 23.1 20.2 22 14
Ohio State 21.3 18.7 22.4 5.5
Illinois* 18.4 16.9 14 18.1
Michigan 17.6 13.3 11.8 12
Wisconsin 13.4 10.4 9.1 14
MSU 12.5 9.4 12.2 4.6
Indiana 11.6 9.6 7.7 12.3
Minnesota 11.5 9.4 7.1 14.2
Purdue 11.1 8.3 6.7 11.7
NU 10.5 8 5.4 10.1
Iowa 9.6 7.1 7.4 7

* Fun fact about Illinois: The Illini either kill or get killed. Last week's win over the Gophers was the only game of the season – win or loss – decided by less than 10 points. Incredibly, the Illini have two losses AND two wins by at least 28 points.

Northwestern and Iowa are definitely the most dramatic teams in the conference. They have the two lowest average-margin numbers – Iowa is 9.6, NU is 10.5. They also have the two lowest average-minus-blowout numbers – UI at 7.1, NU at 8.0.

And this is interesting: Northwestern's margin of victory without the biggest blowout is actually lower than Iowa's – 5.4 to 7.4. And if you don't like the sans-blowout clause, remember that Iowa had their own Towson game: a nearly identical 32-point win over Iowa State. Again, NU beat Towson by 33. So these numbers don't lie.

Truth be told, Northwestern's victories have been closer than Iowa's. Now, Iowa was undefeated, so the Hawkeyes were obviously going to get more publicity for their drama. But NU's conference wins have been by an average of less than five points. Iowa's are by 8.6 points.

So yeah, this year's Northwestern team definitely deserves the Cardiac Cats moniker. They've not only been (statistically) more dramatic than previous NU teams that went by the same name. They've also been more dramatic than anyone else in the Big Ten – even the famous-for-close-victories Iowa club.

When the Wildcats take on the nary-in-a-close game Illini next week, something's gotta give.

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