Ten wins is a pretty darn good season. And a rarity in Evanston.
Last season’s 10-3 finish for Northwestern matched the program’s winningest campaign ever, the Wildcats winning 10 games just three times prior: in 1903, 1995 and 2012.
So with Pat Fitzgerald — who’s either played or coached in three of those four seasons — getting his program to one of its strongest points ever, how can the Cats do even better in 2016?
It starts with doing better in the biggest games. Yes, Northwestern scored a dominating victory over Stanford in the season-opener, a real special victory considering the season the Cardinal went on to have, ending up the Pac-12 champs and earning a massive win in the Rose Bowl. But outside of the win over Stanford and a road win at Duke, Northwestern’s wins did not come against exactly elite competition.
And more importantly, the Cats stumbled in games against their strongest opposition, thumped in three losses to Michigan (38-0), Iowa (40-10) and Tennessee (45-6).
If Northwestern is going to improve upon a sensational 2015 — with another really tough schedule awaiting in 2016 — it’s going to begin and end with playing better against the best competition.
“Ten wins is a special year no matter where you're at, Northwestern or Alabama, doesn't matter, anywhere between,” Fitzgerald said during Big Ten Media Days. “To get to the 11 and get to 12 and get to the Big Ten Championship Game and to get in the Playoff, you're in pretty rare air there and it's a high standard and the way you need to play to win those games. For us to take the next step as a program we've got to do a better job collectively as a program to win those types of games.”
“We try to learn from the mistakes we had in those three losses from last year: Iowa, Michigan, Tennessee,” cornerback Matthew Harris said. “It’s just about being consistent. When we were consistent, we won. When we weren’t consistent, we tried to do too much or weren’t doing enough. So really it’s just about consistency each game, making sure that carries over to the next game.”
Northwestern didn’t just lose those games, they were crushed in them. Obviously, Michigan and Iowa were two of the best teams in the country, 22 wins between them, and Tennessee came on strong as the SEC season wore on. Things don’t get easier for the Cats this season, with their three toughest games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa all coming on the road.
“We definitely want to be better than we were last year,” running back Justin Jackson said. “I think a lot of people look, not negatively, but not as positively as they need to at our season mainly because the three games we lost were not great losses — there is no great loss, right? We want to show up in every single game, we want to come every single week ready to work and come Saturday get off to a good start. Other than Iowa, we didn’t start off great, and that took us throughout the entire game. So we definitely want to have better starts, and hopefully that leads to some wins in those tough games.”
That tough, tough schedule could preclude the Cats from repeating a double-digit-win season. And that’s even with the team being just as good if not better than it was a season ago. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is a year older after a full year of experience starting as a redshirt freshman. His experience alone plus an emphasis on bettering the receiving corps’ performance should transform a passing game that was one of the worst in the country last season. Jackson is arguably the Big Ten’s best running back. And a defense that was among the nation’s best returns playmakers like linebacker Anthony Walker and Harris, with Fitzgerald having plenty of confidence in the two defensive ends replacing departed stars Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.
But all that experience and talent still has to prove it can win the big ones.