The perception from two weeks in the spotlight

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.

  • Arnie

    OK, we’ve lost the 2 games on our schedule that we knew preseason would be monumentally difficult. OK, flush it, and beat the Gophers badly.

  • NUCat_TX

    Great article PRR.

    We are an upper-mid tier program. It’s been 18 years since we were in Pasadena, it many be another 18 years before we return… or 88……
    But we’ll continue to cheer on the cats, continue to wear purple on Saturdays in the fall.
    The 95 Cats may turn into the 85 Bears – a legendary level that cannot be attained again – but it’s there, dangling just out of reach. The Brass Ring.
    Honestly and realistically, I want the program to go to a bowl game every year, and challenge for a Big Ten title once every 5 years, and make a national splash once a decade.
    I’m still behind the Cats. It’s OUR program.

    • USAF Cat

      Agreed. I was disappointed in Saturday’s performance. But hey teams lay an egg every now and then. It’s just unfortunate that it happened in Madison twice in a row. The season isn’t lost yet and there’s a lot of talent in thd pipeline. So, let’s get ready for Saturday. It’s Beat Minny Monday!!!

    • James Klock

      Except that this team is *better* than the ’95 ‘Cats, who arrived in Pasadena tied for the Big Ten Championship (a thing which isn’t allowed to happen, anymore…) OSU had serious claims to being a much stronger team than the Wildcats, in the 1995 season, but the way the conference was designed in those days, there was no show-down between us, and the relevant tie-breaker for the Rose Bowl berth was “who hasn’t been in longer”…

      Partly, the competition this year is harder than it was in 1995. Partly, the structure of determining the Big Ten Champion is different. In any case, the road to Pasadena this year is a longer and harder one, than it was in 1995.

      • PurpleHayes

        1995 standings: Northwestern 8-0, OSU 7-1. What am I missing? And if we had played them, which I wish we had, I would have bet the house on NU, because the X-factor many ascribed to OSU 2013 (“finding a way to win”) was oozing from the 1995 Wildcats.

      • NUCat_TX

        I wasn’t trying to compare the two programs, although I wholeheartedly disagree with you and would welcome the opportunity to debate you over a couple of Sun King beers in Indy.
        LTP is buying!
        (see – isn’t this better than name calling, trolling, or other despicable interwebz behavior?)

  • cece

    powerwashing the stands and a peanut free game. another crowd building device. let’s see how this one turns out.

  • cece

    powerwashing the stands and a peanut free game. another crowd building device. let’s see how this one turns out.

  • Catatonic Joe

    The perception at other B1G schools (apparently an accurate one), remains that Northwestern is a “respectable” program that should not be taken lightly, but that is not feared.

    • MB

      I disagree. I don’t think that Urban Meyer thinks that after his team only won because of a lucky fourth down stop where NU’s best player fumbled (chances are that NU would have scored a TD after that and left little time on the clock).

      • Catatonic Joe

        Sorry, but that is the intangible difference in college football and college basketball. The top teams just “know” they will find a way to win, which is why you will see shock on their faces when they occasionally lose. Urban Meyer and his players would just have thought that they needed another score.

  • Timc

    Some of our weaknesses take years to fix. Enter Jeff Budzein. Still waiting on another key position. Exit Brandon Williams.

  • Grid Iron Dave

    I want to make a comment here about perceptions/program traction. Yes, there are many professional pundits, and we all seem to crave their approval, but I want to relay to all of you something that blew me away last weekend. I was on a work event Saturday- the Bank of America 500 down in North Carolina- and a high level executive was giving my team a tour of the facility in his suburban.

    Naturally, I was getting updates on my phone as to the goings on (or lack there of in NU’s case), and this executive asked me which game I was following. I told him I was following the Wisco/ NU match up, and then he said something interesting: which team are you rooting for? I told him NU, and he said, “I am so glad you said that! I think what Pat Fitzgerald is doing at NU is awesome. Not only for you guys, but for all of college football. He is helping to save the game.”

    If this is something that is recognized by a car racing executive in North Carolina, then gentlemen, a corner has been turned. THAT is a huge win for the program, because that is what recruits are hearing and will drive them to come play in Evanston.