The last time Northwestern came off of a ten win season, expectations were high. In 2012, the Wildcats finished the year 10-3 and capped it all off with a victory in the Gator Bowl. They went into the next year ranked 22nd in the pre-season AP poll, but fell well short of that with a disappointing 5-7 season in 2013, which was followed by another one to match in 2014.
So when Northwestern wasn’t ranked on any pre-season polls coming off last year’s ten win season and Bowl appearance, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. A ten win season for Northwestern is looked at as an anomaly for a team not considered among the elite of the Big Ten. Northwestern is going to be in “prove it” mode this year with a schedule much more daunting than the one they faced last season.
“I tell my teammates every day, it’s on us”, said junior linebacker Anthony Walker on Big Ten Media Day. “We can’t get mad that we’re not ranked higher, we’ve gotta go out there and prove that we should be ranked higher.”
But it won’t be easy, with a slate of October opponents featuring Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State.
“It’s gonna be tough,” junior running back Justin Jackson said. “Playing those teams at any point during the year is tough, much less playing them all in the same month. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
October has not been kind to Northwestern in the past. Last year it gave them their two only losses of the regular season in brutal fashion, 38-0 against Michigan and then 40-10 against Iowa, who they kick off the month against this year. It is going to be an extremely challenging run of games, especially with two of them (against Michigan State and Ohio State) on the road, but this is just the kind of opportunity the players hope to use as proof that not only was last season not a fluke, but that their best football is still ahead of them.
“I think we want to prove that we’re better than last year,” said Jackson. “Last year we had some huge games we didn’t show up in. I think this year we really want to come out and prove what type of team we are.”
Northwestern sounded like a team out to prove everyone wrong when they met the media last week at McCormick Place, a team that knows that if you want to be in contention for the Big Ten West title come November you have to show up for those tough games, a point head coach Pat Fitzgerald drove home in his opening press conference.
“There’s no question if we want to be in position to compete for this trophy to my right, we’ve got to be more consistent in October.”
Last year the Wildcats shocked the nation by opening their season with a 16-6 win over Stanford, and this year they should actually have an easier run up to October, giving them an opportunity to gel before the competition amps up. That said, they need to be careful and not take any of those games for granted, as a loss in September could potentially be deadly for their season.
Northwestern plays their first four games at home, and while Western Michigan and Illinois State look like wins on paper, they both act as perfect trap games against two teams with something to prove against Northwestern exactly the way the Wildcats approached Stanford. Northwestern beat their next two opponents, Duke and Nebraska, last year on the road, but both were closely contested games, so its important that they don’t get caught looking ahead.
In the wake of that daunting October schedule, the Wildcats will kick off November with Wisconsin at home, Purdue and Minnesota on the road and then cap off the season at home against Illinois. Northwestern beat all four teams last year, although they always have tough battles against Wisconsin, and Illinois will be looking to avenge last year’s loss in Lovie Smith’s first season as head coach.
Northwestern’s full schedule looks like this:
9/3 – vs Western Michigan
9/10 – vs Illinois State
9/17 – vs Duke
9/24 – vs Nebraska
10/1 – at Iowa
10/15 – at Michigan State
10/22 – vs Indiana
10/29 – vs Ohio State
11/5 – vs Wisconsin
11/12 – at Purdue
11/19 – at Minnesota
11/26 – vs Illinois
Will Northwestern be able to put together a second straight winning season? Will their defense be able to pick up right where they left off? Who will step up in place of last year’s seniors? Will we see an improvement from Clayton Thorson and the offense? Stay tuned to Midway Madness for positional previews, in-depth season & game predictions and more as we count down to the first game on September 3rd!