Northwestern’s loss leaves the Big Ten reeling
The Big Ten is officially a mess.
Thanks to No. 8 Northwestern falling to Michigan State 29-20, the conference is now down to Ohio State, which is currently experiencing a COVID outbreak, as its lone College Football Playoff contender. Yikes!
There was a brief 24-hour window after Ohio State’s game with Illinois was canceled where the college football world collectively wondered, is Northwestern really going to do this? Can the Wildcats really make the CFP and play Alabama? While even the most die-hard fan would’ve admitted the answer to that question was, ‘No, of course not,’ the dream was still very much alive—until early Saturday evening.
Northwestern, after this dud, is all but eliminated from CFP contention, though it still needs just 1 win over its final 2 games (at Minnesota and home vs. Illinois) to clinch the Big Ten West Division. That’s still a significant accomplishment, especially since Northwestern was 1-8 in league play last year. But considering the golden opportunity Pat Fitzgerald’s group had to stroll into the B1G title game, this loss will sting for a long, long time.
The Big Ten badly needed Northwestern (5-1) to continue their best start to league play since 1996. Instead, there is a very real, unfortunate possibility that the Big Ten Championship Game will basically be meaningless in context of the CFP. If No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) has to cancel another game, it won’t be eligible.
The Wildcats seemed assured to at least make it to the B1G title game unscathed, with 3 games remaining in which they would be double-digit favorites. And they couldn’t even get past 13.5-point underdog Michigan State, which had been outscored 73-7 over its last 2 games. The same issues that have plagued Northwestern—mainly a sputtering offense that left its defense no margin for error—crippled it in East Lansing.
The Wildcats scored between 17 and 27 points for the fifth straight week, but the difference was that they turned it over 4 times (though the fumbled lateral to close the game doesn’t really count). Northwestern entered the day No. 4 nationally in turnover margin (+1.6 per game), but Peyton Ramsey (21 of 43 for 223 yards) was picked off twice by Shakur Brown. Ramsey now has 6 interceptions on 198 attempts after 5 on 300 attempts last season. Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who has given this offense the jolt it needed the last 2 weeks, dropped several passes in critical situations. Kyric McGowan, who made several terrific catches, fumbled just as Northwestern seemed to get some momentum on Paddy Fisher’s interception.
The issues in the run game (37 rushes for 63 yards) were predictable coming off a game against Wisconsin in which the Wildcats had 24 yards on 23 carries. Neither Drake Anderson nor Isaiah Bowser are game-breakers, and the offensive line has really struggled to open up holes. Northwestern could really use Rashawn Slater, a potential first-round pick who opted out of the season to train for the NFL Draft. Aside from Peter Skoronski, the Wildcats have really struggled up front.
You could say it wasn’t Northwestern’s day, but these aren’t necessarily new issues for an offense that had struggled mightily, even as the Wildcats racked up the wins. Northwestern came into the game 122nd out of 127 FBS teams in yards per play (4.5). It was only a matter of time before that came back to bite the Wildcats, who had won thanks to one of the country’s top defenses. After winning their previous 4 games by a total of 26 points, that time was Saturday.
Northwestern, for the majority of the game, delivered another excellent performance, limiting Rocky Lombardi to just 11 completions on 27 pass attempts. But Lombardi hit 2 big ones for scores (a 75-yarder to Jalen Nailor and a 15-yarder to Jayden Reed).
Things change quickly in college football, especially in a pandemic-plagued year. As the season has evolved, it’s become more clear that it’s unlikely that even teams in the same conference will play the same number of games. That means the selection process of the College Football Playoff could be more subjective than ever. Winning is no longer enough.
So even if Northwestern had battled back from the 17-0 deficit to win, squeaking by Michigan State wasn’t going to cut it. The goal was to look like the best team in the Big Ten, and Northwestern fell miserably short.
For a Northwestern team fresh off earning its highest ranking from the CFP Selection Committee, the disappointment will linger long past Saturday at its blown opportunity. Ditto for a conference mired in mediocrity outside of Ohio State.