ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The last time Northwestern played a game this big, the season spiraled out of control.
The Cats were undefeated after four weeks back in 2013 and played a huge Big Ten opener against Ohio State. ESPN Gameday visited Evanston for the top-20 showdown. And though the game was closely contested, the Cats lost. And then they lost and lost and lost and lost, finishing the season 5-7 after winning their first four games.
Two years later, Northwestern’s perfect start to this season came to a screeching halt Saturday in a 38-0 blowout loss to Michigan on Saturday afternoon at the Big House.
Fairly or unfairly, thoughts drifted back to 2013, and questions were posed afterward as to how something like that can be prevented from occurring again.
Realistically, something like that seems almost impossible to repeat. If you’ll remember, that was the year of the Hail Mary loss at Nebraska, the sliding field goal that forced overtime against Michigan and the overtime defeat at Iowa. It seemed the Cats were finding new ways to lose, each more unbelievable than the last.
But one loss dictating the rest of the season isn’t without precedent in college football. But perhaps having gone through that 2013 experience, this team’s leaders will be able to alter attitude and keep one loss from becoming seven.
“I think the team didn’t recover from the standpoint of the wins and losses, but I think they recovered from the way they came back. And the disappointing part in the past was we didn’t recover in the win column. That team fought. We fought, we just didn’t find a way to win, and we beat ourselves a bunch that year,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after Saturday’s game. “And that’ll be something that I share with the guys. Those teams came back. You think about the way that some of those games went down, those were pretty hard gut punches back in the day.
“A lot of our seniors have been a part of that. I think their attitude was right in the locker room right now. I saw Danny Vitale before I left, he said, ‘We’re going to flush it, and we’re going to move on.’ Got beat by a very good team today, and we didn’t play very well, made them look even better. Credit Michigan. They played outstanding, and I didn’t have the team ready to go.”
There are already positives that Fitzgerald is seeing compared with some of his team’s past sour performances. Take last season’s blowout loss at Iowa. The Cats were drubbed, 48-7, and much like Saturday’s game, it was over early. Iowa was up 24-0 after a quarter, up 38-7 at the half. Saturday the Wolverines had a 21-0 lead after a frame, a 28-0 advantage at the break.
But unlike last season’s rout, Fitzgerald saw some decent resolve from his team, even if it didn’t result in any points. And, to give the Northwestern defense some credit, all it allowed after two first-quarter touchdowns by the Michigan offense — the Wolverines scored their other two first-half touchdowns on special teams and defense — was a third-quarter field goal and a garbage-time touchdown in the game’s final minutes.
Those positives have Fitzgerald thinking differently about his team.
“I thought a year ago out in Iowa City, I thought that we got hit and lost momentum early and then we didn’t respond. We didn’t respond at all,” he said. “I thought today, at times we responded, especially from a defensive standpoint there were some times that we responded positively.”
As Fitzgerald mentioned, the key is, unsurprisingly, moving on and doing it quickly. That’s on the guys who went through this back in 2013, and they’re also confident that this year will be different.
“As the leadership group, we’ve got to beat that home, that we’ve just got to flush this,” super back Dan Vitale said. “We’re a much better team than we showed today, and we know that. A hundred percent, deep down in our hearts, we know we’re a better team than we showed today. If we can do that and get the attitude back to where we need it to be, I think we’ll be OK.”
Next up is the same Iowa team that handed Northwestern such a brutal defeat a season ago, though it’s not exactly the same team. The Hawkeyes are much better this season, undefeated and playing terrifically on the offensive side of the ball behind a new quarterback (C.J. Beathard) and a breakout running back (Jordan Canzeri).
With the Cats losing, it’s the Hawkeyes sitting alone as the best-looking team in the Big Ten West. If Northwestern is still going to challenge for a spot in the conference title game, it will most likely require a win over Iowa.
“I think it’s important that we know that all of our goals are still ahead of us. We can still win the Big Ten West. Obviously, we’ve just got to win the rest of our games and move forward from that, but all of our goals are still ahead of us,” Vitale said. “We’ve been in this situation where we’ve lost a big game like this, but we fought every single game after that. It’s all just about how we respond.”