What do you say about a game like today? That was the question I was struggling to answer on my train ride home from Ryan Field this afternoon. Though the trip took almost the entirety of the first half of the Iowa - Wisconsin game to complete, I still found myself without a satisfactory response.
Good job playing 3.5 quarters of football? Way to almost upset the last undefeated Big Ten team? At least you weren't blown out?
Yeah, no. That's kind of like hopping over a puddle of mud on the sidewalk only to land in a pile of dog crap. The end result is the same: you're unhappy, and you stink.
Okay, maybe I'm being too harsh. Northwestern doesn't stink, really (shhh, Iowa fans). They are 5-2. One game away from bowl eligibility. And they have three games remaining on the schedule that are very winnable (Indiana, Illinois, Penn State) with an upset (Iowa or Wisconsin) never out of the question. Get three of those games and you're at 8-4, matching last year's total. And that's great, but...
It feels like this team is always stuck in this gear. Always in the middle of the conference. Despite recruiting disadvantages, they seem to do well at finding and developing underappreciated talent, but ultimately, too often, they just can't get it done.
While today's loss certainly wasn't as embarrassing as, say, the ‘Cats failure during the Greg Paulus challenge last year, it was still just... ugh. Penalties for 66 yards? Two lost turnovers? One of them on 1st and goal from the one?! It's just sloppy. The offense is clearly capable of scoring touchdowns - you don't put up 27 points on Sparty if you have an anemic offense (like say, some other team from Illinois...). The defense is clearly capable of making stops. Despite the fact that they eventually gave up 35 points on the day, they held MSU scoreless for almost an entire half and forced a number of punts after allowing State to get part way down field.
So, if all of this is true, why didn't it translate into a win? I really just don't know. I still have more questions than answers.
Why did Northwestern have 47 rushing attempts to 30 passes?
Why did we rely on runs up the middle by someone other than Dan Persa during situations other than 3rd or 4th and 1 when we are CLEARLY NOT A RUNNING TEAM?
Why, when we were up by six with just over 8 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, were we only able to hold the ball for all of a minute before allowing Michigan State's offense right back on the field?
Why did we then allow MSU to score a go-ahead touchdown after getting them to 3rd and 15??
And most importantly, why, oh why, on our 2 minute drill drive did we commit a facemask penalty on the first snap, backing us up from the 33 to the 18?
I want to have answers to these questions. I really do. But I just don't. The Wildcats are a team that sometimes does this. Sometimes, they just don't seem to be able to get over the hump. They can thrill you one week and break your heart the next.
Ultimately, when it comes down to it, I'm disappointed, but not depressed. I honestly do not feel the way about Michigan State (despite some of the Sparty fans sitting in front of me... not the best representatives of the fan base, guys) that I do about Iowa, Illinois, or Ohio State. And I love that they are having a special season. I love the increased parity in the conference - it keeps things interesting for much longer than typical. So... I am accepting today's defeat. I am moving on.
Win three more games, beat Illinois on a national stage at Wrigley Field and I will be happy. Really, I will. It'll have been a good season.
It's just... I do sometimes wish though... well... never mind...
Until next time,
GO U! NU!