Is Northwestern for real? We’re about to find out Saturday against Wisconsin
We shouldn’t be surprised, at this point, about anything Pat Fitzgerald does. For years, he has proven what few thought possible — that you can build a winner at Northwestern.
Coming off his worst season, of course Fitzgerald found a way to make this one arguably his best. At 4-0, the No. 19 Wildcats are essentially playing in a Big Ten semifinal on Saturday afternoon as they host No. 10 Wisconsin (2-0). In a season full of surprises, that Fitzgerald found a way to get the Wildcats back atop the Big Ten West ranks near the bottom of the list. It’s hard to find a coach who does more with less than Fitzgerald, who has the Wildcats in the Top 25 for the 6th time in the last 9 years.
While Fitzgerald has nothing left to prove, the 2020 Wildcats can answer an important question: Are they a legitimate contender?
The easy answer is no, of course not. This is Northwestern, which has finished the season in the Top 25 just 4 times since 1997 and is held back in recruiting by its high academic standards. The Wildcats are a good story because they often punch above their weight class, but it’s hard to do that week in, week out. Even in 2018, when Northwestern won the West, it started 1-3, with losses to football powerhouses Duke and Akron.
But let me make the case.
I know, Northwestern has won its last 3 games by a combined 16 points, and in a sport in which style points matter, the Wildcats won’t get much love. It’s much easier to tell with a team like Wisconsin, which just walloped Michigan 49-11 and did the same to Illinois. But Northwestern has a few things working in its favor.
For one, that defense. I know, it’s a part of the game that seems to lose a little bit more relevance each year as the rules change and quarterbacks get better and better. Even Nick Saban said as much earlier this year. That’s all well and good.
But that side of the ball still has some value. When Alabama won it all in 2017, it had the best defense in the country. In Clemson’s national championship season in 2018, it had the No. 5 defense in the country. Ohio State, which seemed to be every bit as good as Clemson and LSU last season, had the best defense in the country.
Northwestern is off to a dominating start defensively, ranking fifth nationally in allowing 4.3 yards per play and allowing just over 300 yards per game. It didn’t allow a point in the second half in its first 3 games. When it matters most, Chris Bergin, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher step up. When it matters most, Greg Newsome locks up stud wideouts such as David Bell. Look at what Maryland has done the last 2 games in averaging 540 yards — after getting 207 against Northwestern.
But as Saban and many others have come to realize, it’s all about offense. And that may be true.
Though Northwestern doesn’t have a flashy offense and never will, what about an opportunistic unit that ranks 29th nationally in third-down conversions and first in fourth-down conversions? What about an offense that, down 17-0 against Iowa, rallied for a road win? Defensive-minded teams aren’t supposed to be able to come back. But the Wildcats pitched a shutout in the second half, picking off Spencer Petras 3 times and getting enough out of Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey to win.
Speaking of Ramsey, the quarterback has been the missing piece from a team that went just 1-8 in the Big Ten last season. The Wildcats were above average defensively last year, but they were so inept on offense that their 43-point outing in this year’s opener was almost equal to the 51 total points they scored in the first 6 B1G games last season.
There were some outlets that saw this Northwestern turnaround coming, like Phil Steele’s preview magazine, and there were some that found it ridiculous that Northwestern received a vote in the preseason poll. Personally, I did too and couldn’t see how Northwestern would pass by teams such as Minnesota and Iowa.
Whether or not you believe in the Wildcats yet, the bottom line is there are 12 undefeated FBS teams who have played 3 or more games, and Northwestern is one of them. In a season in which there are no non-conference cupcakes, that is commendable. In fact, if Northwestern had its few cupcakes (Tulane, Central Michigan and Morgan State), it would be in a spot similar to Minnesota last season heading into its showdown with Penn State — unbeaten yet with something to prove.
Northwestern has a similar chance at legitimacy on Saturday against a Wisconsin team that looks to be Ohio State’s greatest threat in the Big Ten. Before minimizing the Wildcats’ chances, consider this: the teams have split the last 6 matchups, with the cumulative score 116-110 in favor of the Badgers. It’s been that close.
Overlook Fitzgerald and Northwestern at your own risk.