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Northwestern: Something Less Than Hate

A long-term look at the Wildcats

“If you want a picture of Northwestern’s future, imagine Duke beating them—forever.”

My job here is supposed to be writing a hate piece. However, collectively, we’ve been doing this for well over a decade, and I don’t want this to feel played out. Additionally, I did most of the hate pieces a couple of years ago, and don’t want to plagiarize myself, so we’re going to mix it up ever so slightly.

Instead, in the spirit of one-time Wildcat coach Dennis Green, we’re just going to shoot straight this year. Taking a big picture view, it’s pretty clear that Northwestern is what we thought they were. I’ve reviewed the last 50 or so years of Northwestern football, sobered up, and am ready to provide some indicative minutiae from what I’ve learned. Ready everybody?

No letting Northwestern off the hook after last year’s 1-11 shitshow.

Kicking off our historical profile, most everybody knows the Wildcats were historically bad in the late 70’s/early 80’s, including a 34-game losing streak from ‘79-’82 (STILL AN FBS RECORD!!!)* And we have previously provided a classic account of the infamous 0-0 tie between Illinois and Northwestern from ‘78:

But take a step back and appreciate that this wasn’t a four or five year run of ineptitude.

*Can we still call it FBS now that there’s going to be a 12-game playoff? Are we back to D-I?

Every Northwestern season from 1972-1994 ended with a losing record. That’s 23 straight years of being bad. You can’t buy consistency like that! From 1976-1981, Northwestern went 3-62-1. No, this maybe isn’t as eye-catching at 34 straight losses, but, come on. That’s a winning % of 5% that went on for over half a decade. (Shout out to Illinois for giving Northwestern a victory AND a tie during that run; the other wins were Michigan State and Wyoming)

Hold on, though, as that doesn’t fully capture the putridness (putridity? Help me, verbose NW alum!). From 1972-1985, Northwestern won 25 games (i.e., 1.79/year), but NONE of them were over a team that ended the season with a winning record. 14 years of mild upsets, at best. Yuck.

And even when the Wildcats showed a little punch, here are the four above .500 opponents NW defeated in the entirely of the ‘72-’94 span:

  • 1986 Army (6-5, no bowl)
  • 1986 Michigan State (6-5, no bowl)
  • 1990 Northern Illinois (6-5, no bowl)
  • 1991 Illinois (6-5 regular season, lost bowl game 6-3, to finish 6-6)

Just a murderer’s row right there, I tell ya. Bottom line: over a 23 season stretch, Northwestern beat one team that made a bowl game. Hell yeah.

Nothing tickled me more in going over past Northwestern seasons than the 1983 “showdown” with Indiana. Northwestern won that game 10-8, which is just awesome when you realize that the two coaches that day—Dennis Green and Sam Wyche—would each go on to lead NFL teams that produced historically notable offenses (‘98 Vikings and ‘88 Bengals, respectively). Two coaches, each destined for significant, if not ultimate, NFL success, reduced to a 10-8 slap fight. Just excellent to encounter. The B1G archives aren’t just dusty, there’s plenty of entertainment value to be had.

Keeping with this train of thought, perusing Northwestern’s historical suckitude drove me to create a new measure/stat. I don’t have a name for it (proposals welcome in the comments), but it occurs whenever there’s a game between two teams who combine for 20 or more losses in the season when they play. As you might expect, the Wildcats are well-represented:

  • 1984: Northwestern (2-9) over Indiana (0-11), 40-37
  • 1989: Wisconsin (2-9) over Northwestern (0-11), 35-31
  • 1998: Northwestern (3-9) over UNLV (0-11), 41-7
  • 1998: Northwestern (3-9) over Hawaii (0-12), 47-21 (yes two winless opponents in 1998!)
  • 2019: Northwestern (3-9) over UMass (1-11), 45-6

What’s more, Northwestern can find ways to embarrass themselves even in good seasons. The 2000 squad that provided the last share of a conference title for the Wildcats missed out on winning the B1G outright because of a 27-17 loss to Iowa in the penultimate game of the season. Iowa went 3-9 that year. So, instead of heading to the Rose Bowl and a date with a flawed Washington squad that Purdue hung with for most of the game, Northwestern got to get curb stomped by Nebraska, 66-17. Pretty sure that’s the non-Purdue record for worst bowl loss by a B1G team.

In more recent times, there’s the Duke series. Duke only leads the all-time series 12-10, but has won the last four. Even when Northwestern was on a 10-2 run from 1996-2016, the Wildcats still found a way to soil themselves: In 2007, a Northwestern team that was to finish 6-6 and miss out of a bowl game lost to Duke 20-14 for Duke’s only win of the year.

To perhaps push the Duke thing to it’s breaking point, I can’t help but mention the ‘09 Wildcats (8-5, 5-3, a good season!), dropping a 37-34 shootout to Syracuse, who went 4-8 on the year. This game marked the only 300-yard passing day in the career of Orange QB, and former Duke PG, Greg Paulus.

Pictured: Future Northwestern head basketball coach Greg Paulus.

Zeroing in on a game dear to my own Badger-loving heart, let’s talk about 2010. You may recall that Wisconsin beat Indiana 83-20. Yes, UW did ring up 24 fourth-quarter points. And, yes, Bert is not afraid to keep his foot on the pedal. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Wisconsin ended the season by beating a 7-4 Wildcat crew 70-23. And that all 70 points came in the first three quarters. For all the occasional success Northwestern has had, from the long view it’s not surprising that Northwestern week is happening in May.

I concede that Northwestern fan can find enough positive memories to wax nostalgic over. 1995, 1996, and 2000 all ended with B1G titles, and there were division titles in 2018 and 2020. Each season featured idiosyncrasies that seem almost endearing if you don’t despise NW:

  • The only year of the five Northwestern didn’t lose a regular season non-conference game was the year they didn’t play any because of Covid.
  • Five losses of 20 points or more in these seasons.
  • Scoring offense ranks (starting with 1995): 46, 44, 10, 100, 93
  • Scoring defense ranks (starting with 1995): 7, 47, 100, 41, 5

To be sure, more befuddling than hateworthy. Heck, it doesn’t stop there. Fitzgerald has had three 10-win seasons as coach. None resulted in a division title. The 2012 team blew fourth quarter leads (two of them multi-score) in all three conference losses (Michigan, Penn State, and Nebraska). The 2015 team beat the eventual Rose Bowl Champions—Christian McCaffery and a loaded Stanford team (remember them, Iowa?)—but the Wildcats’ three losses were by a combined 107 points. And the 2017 team won seven straight B1G games, but still was uneven enough to lose by 24 to a solid, but not spectacular, Duke team.

Sizing this all up, what to make of Northwestern? Well, macro-level, this is a below average program that is still good enough to surprise occasionally, even with deeply flawed, or incomplete teams. Conference strength probably factors in, too. Northwestern is better positioned than Vandy, but not as well as Stanford, who flourished in the vacuum created by USC coming undone after Pete Carroll left and NCAA sanctions arrived. As a college football fan, the 2000 team was clearly more fun to watch than any other really successful Northwestern team, but the most common path for success for the Wildcats, historically, seems to be the classic underdog version: run ball, play good defense, be opportunistic. Then again, another big factor, lately, has been that Northwestern was in the Big Ten West, and that’s ending after this year. So...

Going forward, what are Northwestern’s options? Do the Wildcats have to choose between being boring with a better chance of success (even if not necessarily that high) and being more entertaining, but with a lower ceiling? If history is any guide, then the answer is probably yes, 2000 season notwithstanding.

Over the last 20 years, Northwestern has had nine different seasons right around .500 (5-7, 6-6, 6-7, or 7-6). The Wildcats are clearly capable of sustained mediocrity. Why not make it entertaining mediocrity to boot? Pat Fitzgerald’s first mediocre season was 2007. It featured high-scoring wins over Nevada (36-31), Michigan State (48-41 in OT), and Minnesota (49-48 in 20T). It also featured a 58-7 loss to Ohio State and, naturally, a loss to Duke (the 1-11 Duke team mentioned above). The Wildcats’ last mediocre team under Fitzgerald was the 7-6 squad back in 2016. It featured a less entertaining shootout win over Michigan State (54-40) but no embarrassing blowout losses. It did include a really embarrassing 9-7 loss to Illinois State, though, but also a bowl bid, which the Wildcats won. Is one of these seasons qualitatively better? More fun to experience?

Northwestern seems to be standing at a crossroads as we face the end of B1G divisions and expansion to 16 teams. Northwestern’s most recent recipe for success is pretty much the same one that Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and now, probably, Purdue, use, more of less. Basically, be the best of that cluster and find your way to the B1G title game when Wisconsin is down. But won’t be operative starting in 2024. Despite the last two seasons, the Wildcats probably aren’t looking at a return to late 80’s/early 80’s futility. But challenges abound and there is reason to wonder if Fitzgerald has a plan to meet them.

Every B1G program has questions this time a year, even in Columbus and Ann Arbor. But there are multiple reasons Northwestern is going first this year. And the most important one, in my mind (provided you picked up on the clues throughout), won’t be changing any time soon.