What Northwestern's first loss means to its Big Ten title quest, Playoff hopes
Play with fire long enough, and eventually you’re going to get burned.
Northwestern was 5-0 entering Saturday but had won its last four games by a total of 26 points. Its 4.55 yards per play ranked 122nd of 127 teams. While the Wildcats’ defense is one of the best in the conference, all things considered, Northwestern was pretty fortunate to have the most wins in the Big Ten.
Any sort of luck or metrics aside, the reality was that not only did Northwestern have a commanding grip on the Big Ten West in hopes of returning to the Big Ten Championship for the first time since 2018, but the Wildcats also had a legitimate case to make the College Football Playoff should they be able to pull off the upset against Ohio State.
That all changed Saturday in Spartan Stadium (and Friday night in Columbus) as Northwestern dug a 17-point hole in less than 20 minutes of action. It’s one thing to ride your defense and hold on to tight leads when you go up early, something Northwestern had done in each of its last three games. But it’s a different story to ask a Northwestern offense that averages less yards per game than everyone in the B1G other than Michigan State to claw its way back.
To Northwestern’s credit, it did manage to take a 20-17 lead early in the 4th quarter with a 3-yard touchdown rush by Cam Porter. The Wildcats even looked well positioned to finish off the comeback after Paddy Fisher picked off Rocky Lombardi on the ensuing series, but Kyric McGowan fumbled on Northwestern’s very next play, and the rest is history. The offense reared its true identity, punting twice and turning the ball over 3 times on Northwestern’s final five possessions as Matt Coghlin connected on a pair of field goals to return the lead to the Spartans for good.
At 5-1, Northwestern still sits in first place of the West and has the ever-important head-to-head tiebreaker over No. 24 Iowa, another game in which the Wildcats successfully came back from a 17-point deficit — and that time held on for the victory.
The Wildcats have a game scheduled against Minnesota next week, but reports this weekend of 40 Gophers testing positive for COVID-19 make that game extremely doubtful of happening. Northwestern closes its season at Ryan Field against a bad Illinois team, so in all likelihood Pat Fitzgerald’s team will finish the regular season 6-1 and as Big Ten West champions, but what happens after that is anyone’s guess.
Best case scenario is Ohio State finishes the year 6-0 and Northwestern takes its best swing at the Buckeyes. Reports, however, indicate that Ohio State very likely could have to cancel its upcoming game at Michigan State, which would drop the reigning conference champions below the six-game threshold to qualify for the Championship Game, therefore sending Indiana to the game out of the East and turning the Big Ten’s worst nightmare scenario into a reality.
There’s no score the Wildcats could drop on the Hoosiers that would make the selection committee consider a 1-loss Northwestern team for the CFP, so losing to Michigan State and failing to finish the year unbeaten is likely the end of those lofty postseason dreams.
But for a team that not much was expected from coming off a 3-9 season with a transfer QB under center, success is relative. A divisional title is an accomplishment no matter how you slice it and should merit Fitzgerald at least entering the conversation for Coach of the Year.
The dreams this program had 24 hours ago are probably dead, but one loss and a Big Ten West title isn’t too shabby for a bunch of fighting Rece Davises.