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Northwestern Wildcats 2018 Postmortem: From "losing to Akron" to "destined to win"

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Northwestern is now 15-1 in its last 16 Big Ten regular season games, and that’s about the 14th-most interesting thing about their 2018 season. Come take a walk through the Wildcats’ ridiculous Big Ten West title season.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Find me a story arc in Big Ten football better than the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats.

You can’t; one doesn’t exist.

Can we interest you in two home-field losses to an ACC also-ran and a MAC team that had never, ever, ever beaten a Big Ten/Western Conference* squad?

A team whose coach stubbornly insisted on playing a replacement-level quarterback through multiple Power-5 games?

A team whose potentially-record-setting, bell-cow, face-of-the-program running back retired just a few games into the season?

No?

What about a team that took all those setbacks, many of them self-inflicted, and reeled off eight (8) consecutive Big Ten wins, something it has done just one other time in program history? One that beat three ranked teams while doing that, and threw in a 10-point comeback in the final 2:27 to stun Nebraska to boot? How about a team that matched the Big Ten bullies Ohio State punch-for-punch over three quarters in the Big Ten Championship, before fading in the face of superior athleticism? Would that do it?

No, MNW, never end on a sad note. Always a call to action.

How about a team that took on a Mountain West Pac-12 squad that had won 11 of its past 12 games, using a four-turnover, 28-point third quarter to do it? Would that intrigue you?


I. The Rollercoaster

The fact that you’re rolling your eyes doesn’t mean shit; you, cynical reader, are well aware that Northwestern put together a 2018 season for the ages—one full of so many stupid twists and mind-numbing turns that you are simply exhausted and unable to contend with admitting that, yes, you enjoyed it immensely.

Be it those losses to Duke and Akron, blowing a 17-0 lead to Michigan, playing TJ Green far longer than he was ready for, or losing Jeremy Larkin to retirement; Northwestern persevered and crammed five seasons’ worth of stories into one rollercoaster of a year that had me swearing them off in September, laughing at their absurdity in October, and white-knuckling with them through November and December.

It was a blast, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

OK, except minus the losses to Duke and Akron.

And Notre Dame.

Sure, and Michigan, too.

But I’m still happy, I swear.

II. Credit Where Credit is Due

I wrote this in our pre-season Closing Arguments for Northwestern:

But this year, Dear Reader, it behooves you to support Northwestern as more than just a passive second team. No, this season you need Northwestern to end the disappointing run of worthless badger squads doing jack shit in the national consciousness, building up stories of walk-on and three-star tight ends turning into 325-pound All-American OLs while huffing mediocre fast-casual fries only to falter when the lights are brightest.

You need a dark horse. And you need a dark horse capable of delivering on the promise of knocking off wisconsin while not being 100% fraudulent. You need Northwestern.

I SAID NOT 100% FRAUDULENT—SEE?

Look, you know and I know that this was an incredibly flawed Northwestern team. But I want to single a few players out on both sides of the ball for just how well they played in 2018:

QB Clayton Thorson

Look, he was much-maligned, but coming off a knee surgery, the guy posted career-bests in yards, completion percentage, and yes interceptions but shut up that’s not what we’re doing here. He provided the spark for Northwestern in 2018, and without that senior leadership, who knows where they’d have wound up? Plus, I mean, this:

Watching him hurdle that limp-dick leg kick-out by whichever scrappy badger LB tried it was one of the true joys I felt during the 2018 season. I do not apologize in the slightest for the myriad middle fingers I extended toward the various badger fans in my general vicinity; that run was bitchin; you should feel lucky to have seen it.

Anyways, we’re missing the chemistry that Thorson created—with WRs Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek, with emerging star Riley Lees, with SB Cameron Green. We’re neglecting the bombs to Kyric McGowan and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman. We’re missing the beautiful toss to definitely-a-WR Trey Klock.

If you are a Northwestern fan who still bitches about Clayton Thorson after all his contributions to the program, I would like to meet you in a bar, so that I can buy you a beer, make you beholden to me, and then unleash upon you a 30-minute tirade about why you are a complete moron. Clayton Thorson was, for four years, the architect of the New Northwestern Football—gritty, not-at-all pretty, but winning football.

How the hell did he do it?

RB Isaiah Bowser

His emergence rescued the Northwestern offense. Period. Full stop.

Whether it was running over Rutgers Scarlet Knights or faithfully plunging into opposing defensive lines, Bowser did everything asked of him, and he did it as a freshman. Is he the future of this offense? No one knows! But he exemplifies the hard-nosed, next-man-up platitudes Pat Fitzgerald has been force-feeding us for years. He’s not making me forget Jeremy Larkin anytime soon, but damn if he’s not a fun guy to root for. If Hunter Johnson can spread defenses out in 2019, watch out for this moose barreling through wider gaps.

DE, Destroyer of Worlds Joe Gaziano

Gaziano’s role as a disrupter on defense didn’t get any easier as a patchwork secondary forced the DL to get more pressure quicker, but he rose to the task, posting career highs in tackles (44) and forced fumbles (3), including the fumble that spurred a Jared McGee scoop-six in the Holiday Bowl. Oh, and there were the 7.5 sacks despite drawing chips and double-teams off the snap. He was the motor for a quietly-competent defensive line.

With one more year in college, you’re going to be hearing about Gaziano as a Dean Lowry-esque high-motor guy who can be a late-round NFL draft pick and make real noise on Sundays.

P(/K?!?) Jake Collins

A GRADUATE-TRANSFER PUNTER.

Look, we’re Big Ten fans. We know that punting is winning, and we likely spend more time complaining about our punters than we do praising them.

But Jake Collins, in an unenviable role—flipping a field that, for much of the season, involved an offense behind chains or backed up in its own end—for everyone except a punter, led the Big Ten in total punts (seventy-freakin’-nine) and averaged 40.5 ypp while forcing 39% fair catches, putting 28 inside the 20, and yielding just 4 touchbacks.

Oh, and when both Charlie Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh were down with injury, Collins took on kickoff duties, went 23 on field goals, and banged through 5 PATs. That’s a punter going above and beyond. Thanks for the excellent year in purple, Jake.


III. The Verdict, Reexamined

This was a success. 100%, 2018 was a success for Northwestern, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a complete moron. It was a success when they won the Big Ten West, and it became an absolute romp when they won the Holiday Bowl.

Look at what the OTE Staff thought we’d see from Northwestern, who went 8-4 (8-1) in 2018:

Turns out, minus the non-conference fuckery, the commentariat, Thumpasaurus, and WSR had a really good idea of what to expect from Northwestern in 2018. Congratulations to the latter last two; I’m sure that makes them feel much better about their shit teams.


IV. The Takeaway

We’re left, in the wake of 2018, to wonder if anyone can ever match Northwestern’s ignominious mark of losing all its regular-season non-conference games, then making the conference championship. We’re left, in the wake of 2018, to wonder just how Isaiah Bowser and Hunter Johnson will lead the ‘Cats into 2019. We’re left, in the wake of 2018, to wonder whether it was all a mirage and no, this is really a 7-5 program with a really good publicist.

Not a bad transition year.

So much of what I wrote above feels unfair. I didn’t tell you about Nate Hall, the senior anchor of the linebacking corps who picked off three passes, allowing batterymates Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher to rack up eye-popping numbers, getting into the backfield and forcing fumbles. I didn’t give a deserved shoutout to S JR Pace, the one constant in a secondary (14 GP) who picked off four passes and racked up dozens of tackles while anchoring a makeshift secondary. I didn’t shout out Montre Hartage’s 11 passes defended, John Moten IV’s ridiculous TD run in the Big Ten Championship, Chad Hanaoka—a 5’6” Hawaiian video guy-turned-walkon running back, because holy shit, that’s a thing—on 3rd and 9 in Kinnick somehow turning a draw into a first down and a massive fuck-you to those black-and-gold ingrates. There’s just not enough time to appreciate everything that made this Northwestern Wildcats team so stupidly fun.

And that’s just the point. There were too many stories.

This was unprecedented. It was stupid. It was fun.

It forced you to learn ridiculously-stupid facts about college football; sent sportswriters scurrying for long-since-past schedules to prove points about Northwestern’s lazaritic comeback; defied all odds and logic and common decency, unless you’re someone who happens to enjoy seeing wisconsin and Iowa and Nebraska fans sputtering for words as some nerds in purple won the division that was supposed to be their playground.

And, looking ahead to 2019, it could be setting the table for even bigger things.

OK, fine. Let’s watch that catch one more time.

What a legendary catch.

Take Ben Leber’s call: “It almost seems like this team is just destined, the way their season has gone, to find their way into a Big Ten championship game.”

What a story.

Poll

What was the best part of the Northwestern 2018 season?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Beating Iowa
    (9 votes)
  • 8%
    Beating wisconsin
    (11 votes)
  • 31%
    Winning the Big Ten West
    (40 votes)
  • 14%
    Winning the Holiday Bowl
    (18 votes)
  • 38%
    How DARE you make me choose
    (48 votes)
126 votes total Vote Now

Tell me your favorite in the comments. Go ‘Cats.