‘Cats Storm Past Badgers, Sit Atop the B1G West
In trying to summarize Northwestern’s 20-14 victory over 16th ranked Wisconsin, these are the only words that come to mind.
Not only did the ‘Cats beat the Badgers, but they won their 3rd straight game, are 2-0 in the B1G (they beat Penn State handily on the road last week), and currently lead the B1G West. The program seems to be hitting its stride at the right time, and people are visibly excited about what’s to come.
But it hasn’t always been this sunny. In week two of the season, NU came out uninspired and lost to NIU, which prompted the Huskies to take out a full page ad in the Chicago papers. People around the program felt this embarrassment would inspire the Cats to blow out FCS opponent Western Illinois the following week. That did not happen, which caused an army of doubters from alum and media. Long time Tribune beat writer and NU alum Teddy Greenstein asked Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald “if he thought the ‘Cats would even manage one B1G win.” Fitz responded, “that is insulting.”
And that didn’t even begin to compare to the negative public opinion that clouded the program before the season opener. Prior to the August 30th kickoff against Cal, incessant union talks, the departure of Venric Mark, and the loss of key veterans like DT Sean McEvilly and WR Christian Jones brought a dark cloud over a program that was coming off a traumatic 2013 season.
Exactly one year prior to this Saturday’s victory over Wisconsin, the program was in the national spotlight, hosting ESPN’s College GameDay, sitting at 16th in the polls, and taking on the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes. This day, and the heartbreaking loss that would ensue, turned out to be the pivotal moment in the 2013 season- a season that quickly faced a downward spiral, injuries, fluke plays and was capped off with just one conference win against in-state rival Illinois.
A year later, though, the ‘Cats are making waves again. This Saturday, they proved that not only have they found the consistency that it takes to win, but have also shown the passion, effort, and poise that it takes to be champions. With Wisconsin out of the way, people are including them in B1G Championship conversations, and for the first time in a year, it feels like anything but a pipe dream.
But I digress. The game, aside from its implications, provided plenty to discuss.
Redshirt freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike, along with the rest of the defense, made some serious noise. Igwebuike recorded not one, not two, but three- yes, three- interceptions- all of which came at critical moments–two in the endzone and the other to seal the victory. LB Jimmy Hall also recorded a pick, with the aid of DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, who got his hand in the way of Wisconsin QB Joel Stave. Both corners, Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose, added some key pass breakups, and the front 7 continued to play lights out by constantly pressuring Wisconsin’s QBs.
On the other side of the ball, true freshman running back Justin Jackson proved to be a star in the making, carrying the ball an astonishing 33 times for 162 yards. Senior WR Kyle Prater had a team leading 5 receptions for 55 yards. More important to note, however, was that the offense shook things up and 8 different ‘Cats caught passes from QB Trevor Siemian. The highlight was the play directly after Hall’s interception- a reverse in which WR Miles Shuler ran 16 yards into the endzone for an easy touchdown.
In true ‘Cat fashion, the game came down to the last few minutes, with ‘Cats fans everywhere cognizant that no game is ever over until it’s over (i.e.: Cardiac Cats). Following “I Believe That We Will Win” chants from those in purple, Badger fans started filing out of Ryan Field, but Wisconsin hung on and scored a late TD, moving the score to 20-14. The NU offense went 3 and out, and the Badgers got the ball back, furthering the collective nerves of ‘Cat fans. But the defense proved their legitimacy yet again. LB Jimmy Hall had a diving pass breakup, followed by Igwebuike’s 3rd interception that would seal the fate of the ‘Cats.
Cue: chaos. Students charged onto the field following the final whistle, creating a mass of jumping, screaming, purple at the heart of Ryan Field. It was a moment of true ecstasy. A moment where all the past negativity was nowhere to be found, and the ‘Cats and fans alike took a second to bask in the glory that is beating not only a ranked team, but a ranked team in Wisconsin.
It may have taken a year to live the moment that many expected last year, but I would gladly wait a year to relive it over and over again, and to feel what ‘Cats everywhere were feeling.
The feeling of pure joy.