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Never Leave Early: A Northwestern Wildcats Football 2017 Postseason Review

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Assessing the mixed bag that was yet another 10-win season for Northwestern football in 2017.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern Football since the Walker era has been known as the Cardiac ‘Cats, and the 2017 season was no exception. Your humble Northwestern sportsblogyellers MNWildcat and LincolnParkWildcat will guide you through the season recap.

MNW: As the wind swirled from the upper decks of Nissan Stadium down to our seats in the north end zone, I could sense it coming from my fiancee. She had graciously committed to ride with me from the Twin Cities down to Nashville for my Northwestern Wildcats’ first appearance in the Music City Bowl, but her layered shirts and sweatshirt were not doing anything for her as the temperatures lurched toward freezing.

Clayton Thorson had already been carted off after a well-executed halfback pass from Jeremy Larkin turned catastrophically unlucky, resulting in an ACL injury. Undeterred with backup Matt Alviti at QB, Northwestern continued to chew through yards, as Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier and Alviti picked on Kentucky’s porous run defense.

That made it all the more painful at half when, with the purple ‘Cats leading 17-7, she turned, looked at me, and said “I think we want to leave; it’s too cold.”

LPW: I’ve been a season ticket holder since 2001, and I’ve seen some fun overtime games. The 2001 game against Michigan State, where both team score 22 points in the last five minutes instilled in me a sense that we Northwestern fans never leave the game before it’s over. Think I’m joking? Look at the fourth quarter stats from ESPN’s recap!

For brevity’s sake, my two other favorite overtime games (before this season) was the 2004 victory against Ohio State and the 2014 victory against Notre Dame, and I have a good story from that one:

During the game my father and I had been freezing sitting on a wooden bench in the upper deck of overrated Notre Dame stadium and talking to two very nice Notre Dame fans. They were confident of an Irish victory, and one said to the other that “let’s leave now to beat the traffic. It’s just Northwestern”... Who knew that Irish fans read SBN’s Iowa community Black Heart Gold Pants? Jokes on them, because Northwestern is now 2-0 against Notre Dame since 1995.


MNW: The 2017 campaign for Northwestern, in which they were a rather consensus “dark horse” for the Big Ten West title and at the very least considered in the upper half of the division (we even went so far as to say “Northwestern should win 9 games in 2017”), started...inauspiciously.

LPW: Inauspiciously is a good word meaning “Good lord the (end result of) first five games sucked.”.

MNW: The ‘Cats trailed into the third quarter against an undermanned Nevada Wolf Pack squad before recovering to snatch an uncomfortable double-digit win, then...well, they went on the road to Duke. We don’t have to talk any more about it, do we?

A win over Bowling Green was nice or whatever (49-7), but back-to-back showdowns with the ranked Wisconsin Badgers at the POW Camp and hosting the ranked Penn State Nittany Lions on Homecoming were the test we were all waiting for.

This, uh...this part wasn’t worth the wait.

Thorson got obliterated by blitz after blitz against the badgers, and once wisconsin realized that not fumbling the ball was better than, y’know, fumbling it, the ‘Cats went down by double digits and mustered a comeback a little too late.

Then, Penn State rolled into town, their mighty coach James Franklin having never beaten Pat Fitzgerald in his career.

This, uh...this part wasn’t worth the wait, either.

Despite Saquon Barkley needing the help of a timely block from the umpire to be sprung for his only good run of the day and the ‘Cats defense blowing up the Lions’ read-option over and over, the pass defense had no answer for Trace McSorley as the Penn State signal-caller spread the love among his receivers to the tune of 9.9 ypc.

What was worst, though: the ‘Cats looked like they quit. Did they? I don’t know. I’m not compensated to make those assessments. But a listless blowout loss, at home, on homecoming, against a flawed Top 10 team meant the ‘Cats fell to 2-3 (0-2), and there was no light at the end of that tunnel.

LPW: I think I voted Northwestern 14th in the OTE power polls after losing to Duke, Wisconsin, and Penn State.

I was unhappy James Franklin attained his first win against Pat Fitzgerald, and I’ve detested losing against any Wisconsin based team since my maternal grandfather’s hatred of the Packers probably included the Badgers as well.

I thought we had a good chance to be competitive and have close games, if not win, against Penn State and Wisconsin.

MNW: Here’s where, at least in Northwestern fan circles, shit got ugly.

We tried to vent through the problem. Predictably, that was lots of weird calling for Fitz’s head and other inanery.

Some of us called it an “existential crisis.” That’s an OK way of putting it, I guess, as Northwestern has now existed in the mushy middle of the Big Ten Legends/West for almost a decade, bottoming out once but mostly content with a record in conference somewhere between 4 and 6 wins, a bowl game played in the run-up to New Year’s Day, and the ol’ win-graduate-do-it-the-right-way.

With a win over Maryland in which Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier set the Northwestern record for rushing yards, the ‘Cats had at least righted the ship at 3-3. But...what to make of the rest of the season? Was there room to redeem the bit, or were Northwestern Football, 2017 Edition terminal?

We, uh...we disagreed about that, too. Here’s where, without poking (too much) at some commenters (and people) who I hold in high regard, the insanity kicked fully fucking in, as multiple people disavowed any silver lining to the season, even were the ‘Cats to perform the, at the time, highly improbable task of winning out.

And so I’ll rehash my hypothetical from mid-October, just in case it’s still unclear for Northwestern fans: If you go 9-3 (7-2 B1G), you’ve probably had a really good fucking season.

But that was still left to accomplish.

So there was an offense-murdering slog. And then an overtime.

And then the ‘Cats won. (Noah Fant, what the hell.) It was nice.

So then there was a defense-murdering slog. (Brian Lewerke, holy shit. Cameron Green... no idea where that came from, but do it more, please.) And then an overtime.

And then the ‘Cats won. It was doubly nice. I put my fist in some drywall celebrating.

LPW: I was confident that we’d beat Maryland after injuries started bedeviling the Terrapins.. The next week I was not happy that Fitz went to overtime to beat Iowa, because I thought we should’ve done it in regulation. Still, a win against Iowa is something to be savored, so I wasn’t too sad.

I bet my MSU-alum girlfriend that if Northwestern won, she’d bake me chocolate chip cookies, and if the Spartans won, I’d take the lead on planning a date for us to a place we haven’t been. I was very happy and smiled at my girlfriend as Northwestern won against MSU in overtime and I was eagerly expecting some chocolate chip cookies. She made the cookies, but bought a Spartan helmet-shaped tin on Etsy and sprinkled green sprinkles on the cookies.

Be specific when you’re making sports bets with your girlfriend

Next time I bet against my girlfriend in football, I’ll be more specific.

MNW: So then there was a...well, just a fucking slog. Nebraska (well, really Tanner Lee) was really bad. But then...an overtime.

And then the ‘Cats won. History made. MountainTiger and I got drunk and jumped around like idiots.

Three straight overtime wins. That’s...that’s just lunacy. The ‘Cats couldn’t do it again if they tried, but in a season where they’d fallen down and weren’t likely to get up, they got up and punched back. They dominated Purdue at home. They obliterated Minnesota at home. They demolished Illinois and kept HAT safe in Evanston for another year. 7 straight wins. 7-2 in the Big Ten.

LPW: In 2001 the Chicago Bears had back to back overtime victories, and good God that was fun. I didn’t think I’d see that again, let alone three overtime victories in one season.

After the Iowa game, I was actually happy we decided to take teams to overtime and beat them. Beating MSU in OT was excellent, and winning the rest of the games was just sublime.

A while back I criticized Mick McCall for trying to run a power offense without the personnel, now has the personnel to run an offense that feels familiar to old school fans of the Big Ten: a powerful running game with good passing backed up by a stellar defense. It’s the modern version of three yards and a cloud of dust. It’s a hell of a lot better than running a spread that defenses can shut down and hoping your defense can hold on for dear life.

MNW: Northwestern, passed (understandably) by the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines, two larger fanbases who travel better and command more media attention, accepted the consolation prize of the Music City Bowl.


MNW: I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that I did leave early with my fiancee and our friends after staying for the band’s halftime show. We found a honkytonk along Broadway with a live band, and I shouted, pounded the bar, and drank a shit-ton of beer until it was over. I watched as Kentucky stalked its way back into the game, as Northwestern made terrible decisions on fourth down and forgot how to cover receivers like it was playing Michigan State all over again.

LPW: I’ll attend a bowl game one of these days, perhaps when Northwestern makes the Rose Bowl. I watched this game from my apartment during my week off from work.

I honestly thought we should’ve lost this game due to bad coaching. The refereeing was abominable to both teams, and dammit I was furious at the decision to put Clayton Thorson in a play as a receiver since he got injured. Godspeed on your recovery Clayton!

MNW: After yielding a touchdown where the PAT would’ve tied it, though, the ‘Cats held strong on a two-point conversion. I did a shot. Then I did another. Then I got yelled at for drinking by myself.

It’s Northwestern. Never leave early. They’ll never stop surprising you.

This is a season where I’ll take away that Bennet Skowronek, Flynn Nagel, and Macan Wilson are really an adequate-bordering on-excellent receiving trio. That even though Northwestern loses its greatest bulk rusher in history (he’s no Darnell Autry, but JJtBC is still ridiculous), Jeremy Larkin is an amazingly-capable back. That even though there’s uncertainty with Clayton Thorson’s injury, he could be back by mid-season and our backups will get a whole off-season of prep with the 1s. That the offensive line—with true freshman Rashawn Slater and a whole bunch of returning depth in rising seniors Tommy Doles, J.B. Butler, Blake Hance—will replace C Brad Olson and pave a road to competitiveness in the Big Ten West once again. Oh, and that LBs Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall return for another campaign at a school that’s not Linebacker U, but is sure built in the image of its riverboat-gamblin’ stalwart of a head coach.

Yeah, the ‘Cats lose Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Quiero, master of weirdly-spectacular interceptions. Yeah, we don’t know who the starting QB will be, and Pat Fitzgerald likely won’t tell us until minutes before the opening snap at Purdue. Yeah, even with an All-B1G running back and NFL prospect QB, Northwestern could “only” muster 10-3 (7-2) and failed to knock off any marquee programs.

But for this next group of Wildcats, it’s still early in their careers. And I know never to stop watching until it’s over. Go ‘Cats.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern
Thanks for everything, Justin. Go ‘Cats.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

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