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.
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.
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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.”
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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.”
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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.”