Big Ten

Tight finishes finally going Northwestern's way with 10 wins in sight

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Tight finishes finally going Northwestern's way with 10 wins in sight

The past two seasons, the unfortunate storyline for Northwestern has been finding new and previously believed impossible ways to lose football games.

The Hail Mary loss to Nebraska. The sliding field goal that forced overtime in an eventual loss to Michigan. The failed two-point conversion attempt in last season’s game against the Wolverines.

Late turnovers, overtime defeats. One improbable loss after another.

That’s not so much the case, though, in 2015. In fact, the opposite has proven true, as the Cats are coming through in the clutch, holding off late charges by opponents and benefitting from the late-game wackiness that was the biggest thorn in their side during back-to-back 5-7 finishes.

In no instance was that more evident than last weekend’s road win over Wisconsin. Northwestern led by just six in the game’s final minutes, only producing 10 points off five Wisconsin turnovers. The Badgers marched right down the field and had two game-tying scores pulled off the scoreboard in the final seconds, allowing the Cats to close out the game with back-to-back great defensive plays. All that after Wisconsin had a punt-return touchdown called back earlier in the second half.

[MORE BIG TEN: Power rankings: Hawkeyes, Spartans on title-game collision course]

A brutal way to lose for Wisconsin, for sure, but for Northwestern, happiness over a win and over the fact that that kind of crushing defeat isn’t being felt in its locker room anymore.

“Found a way to get it done,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “Like I told (Wisconsin head coach) Paul Chryst after the game, I’m not sure we deserved to win and they deserved to lose, but somebody had to, so sorry. We got in the locker room, and I wasn’t really that apologetic anymore, to be honest with you. I was just ecstatic for our guys.”

And while the win over Wisconsin came thanks to perhaps the craziest finish of the season, Northwestern has made a habit of winning tight games late during a season that’s a win away from finishing at 10-2.

Before beating the Badgers, the Cats beat Purdue by just a touchdown after the Boilermakers couldn’t capitalize on turnovers, beat Penn State after blowing a lead and needing a last-second field goal for the victory and beat Nebraska by stopping a two-point conversion try and holding off the Huskers in the final minutes.

[MORE BIG TEN: Buckeyes' Ezekiel Elliott apologizes for blasting play-calling]

So what’s changed? Why are these finishes — which for two seasons plagued Northwestern — finally going the Cats’ way?

It’s kind of an easy answer, really. They’re just playing better.

“I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, focusing on the process and not focusing necessarily on the situation as far as the scoreboard or the weather or the wind. Just, what is it that you have to do on that play to execute? We’ve been pretty consistent there,” Fitzgerald said. “As we looked at — even leading up to last week — there were guys that needed to step up and make plays by doing the ordinary things in what might be perceived as a high-pressure moment: a big kick, a big special-teams play, running the clock out and getting the first down when we need it, getting off the field and getting a stop. And we’ve been able to be fairly efficient from an execution standpoint this year maybe when compared to the previous two years, when we just maybe didn’t necessarily make those plays.

“I also think it’s a byproduct of how we’ve practiced. We’ve had a lot of our backups get much more of the reps than maybe I have in the past. That’s a big change this year, and it’s paying dividends. We obviously played a lot more of our backups early in the year, in a rotational aspect, and a lot of those guys are now seeing themselves in full-time starting roles. And the credit goes to our assistant coaches and to the young men because they’ve taken those roles seriously, they’ve worked hard at it, they’ve improved. And now when the program needs them to step up, they’re mentally prepared and physically prepared.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans right back in College Football Playoff race]

While “playing better” is an easy answer to give, it’s not the easiest of results to produce. Asking why these close calls late in games are going the Cats’ way is equivalent to asking why the Cats suddenly have nine wins this season after totaling just 10 the past two years.

Northwestern has gone about becoming great the right way. The players have more experience and they have better chemistry. That, in turn, makes it easier to execute, as Fitzgerald is always talking about, and that leads to wins.

“I think the guys realized we had a distracted football team, and they had to focus on what winners do,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what the seniors had been a part of here, they were a part of a 10-win team and what it takes to mentally and physically get yourself ready. And then obviously the chemistry that needs to happen and be forged when there’s no band, no cheerleaders, no fans, no TV cameras, and that’s how you win close games. It’s not anything magical. It just comes down to a belief in yourself and a belief in each other and trust in what we’re doing.

“We gave that away for a couple years, and nobody was going to give it back to us, we had to take it back. And once we had it in our grasp, we had to sustain it. And there’s plenty of plays and drives and games that we’d like to have back or do differently, but I think from a consistency standpoint, we’re much improved over the last two years.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Northwestern gear right here]

And in the end, this Northwestern team has the opportunity to become the winningest single-season team in program history. A win over Illinois in this weekend’s regular-season finale would be win No. 10, a win total that’s only been reached three times prior. A win this weekend followed by a win in the bowl game would mean 11 victories, a number never reached in program history.

That would be quite the legacy to leave for a team that failed to reach the postseason in the two previous seasons, not to mention an exclamation point and huge example of how big a turnaround it’s been in such a short period of time.

“I’m not afraid to talk about the realities of situations,” Fitzgerald said. “We understand the opportunity that we have in front of us this week. … We talk about going 1-0 each week, and that’s to get to No. 10. We’ve only done that a couple times in this program’s history. Our seniors were a part of the most recent one. So when we get that accomplished, if we get that accomplished, they’re the only guys in our program’s history to say they’ve done it twice, and that’s a pretty special legacy. And that would give you an opportunity to go into some uncharted waters.”

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.