The past two weeks have been big ones for Northwestern. The primetime game on ABC against Ohio State came with the complete attention of the nation and College GameDay in the morning. It was THE game of the day and one people were still talking about around the water cooler — Twittersphere? — Monday morning. Entering the season, everyone had these two weekends circled.
After last Saturday’s beat down in Madison, Northwestern fans likely want everyone to forget that the second game even took place. Just wave your hand like a Jedi any time anyone mentions Saturday’s game.
Now those weekends have come and gone. What have we learned about Northwestern as a program?
We spent a week following the Ohio State game, even in defeat, claiming Northwestern had turned some corner. The program had been on the big stage and acquitted itself well, making believers of everyone that they were a big-time program. Whatever next step Northwestern was supposed to take and wherever the program was supposed to go, it felt like it had begun vigorously knocking on the door or nearly picking the lock.
The Wisconsin game, a second chance against a Big Ten power on national TV (at least west of the Mississippi), represented a chance to prove the Ohio State game was no fluke. Even a loss (a close one at least) could keep Northwestern’s validation.
Just not that. Not a 35-6 beatdown where the entire team struggled to do the simple things Northwestern typically does in its normal gameplan. The energy from last Saturday’s game was completely gone. It hardly looked like the same team from the previous week, much less the years of success the program had before. It was a failure on all fronts — execution from the players and motivation and gameplanning from the coaches.
Northwestern football at its very best and Northwestern football at its very worst in this new reality played out on the broadcast network (if such things matter in the Internet age) for everyone to see.
Where does that leave Northwestern?
Without a doubt, the attention from GameDay will linger on in the minds of recruits and the general nation. More people watched that game at Ryan Field two weeks ago and the energy and attention GameDay brought is not going to go away. Particularly recruits will likely remember the energy and feeling on campus and in the stadium that night. Those are all net positives.
The publicity that came out of this weekend — read Adam Rittenberg’s account following that week of preparation — will linger on.
In the same breath, Fitzgerald acknowledges the exposure the week will bring. Northwestern doesn’t schedule many official recruiting visits during the season, preferring to give coaches extra time to visit with prospects during or after bowl games, but one prospect will be on campus Saturday. Fitzgerald, scheduled to make a live appearance on “College GameDay,” suggests the recruit travel with him to the set.
“That’s pretty strong,” recruiting coordinator Matt MacPherson says.
Northwestern took full advantage of the attention on its campus and played up to that level. There is no doubt about that.
Coming out of that week, Northwestern’s program perception was at an all-time high. Those who watched the game knew that Northwestern was not a flash in the pan, but a program that was a consistent winner and bowl participant. The Wildcats were not about to fade any time soon. This was a major introduction to the national stage.
Even in defeat, Northwestern received a bit of a perception boost from the Ohio State loss. The Orlando Sentinel’s weekly bowl projects had Northwestern in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Phoenix the entire season. That is, until the Ohio State game. After the loss, Northwestern got bumped up to the Outback Bowl in the paper’s bowl projections. Ohio State week helped.
Momentum is only as good as the next day’s pitcher.
That next day’s pitcher put Northwestern right back where it started. If ever NU deserved the “just Northwestern” title, Saturday’s game showed it. In the spotlight and a chance to continue building the program forward, Northwestern laid a major egg. One that seemed to defy all explanation.
These two weeks that were circled so clearly on the calendar at the beginning of the year as fans hoping to see Northwestern gain respect and credibility have passed. And they have seemingly left us right where were before.
Northwestern struggles to win when the spotlight shines on them the brightest and find the consistency to compete against the best teams in the country year in and year out. The talent level may have increased — dramatically even — but there are still certain players at several positions that Northwestern cannot afford to lose to remain competitive.
In other words, the Wildcats are exactly what their record says they are.
This is a very good team. And a very competitive team. It is also a team still with flaws and a team that needs to have its focus and execute to be successful against the “big” teams on its schedule.
After these two monumental weeks, Northwestern has not changed many minds likely. The Wildcats, as a program, are right back where they started at the beginning of the year.
Those Rose Bowl dreams might have dwindled, but there is still the chance for another nice season and another nice bowl appearance. It will be a fight, as we always knew. That moment in the sun has come and gone though and Northwestern’s perception likely has not changed.