Football: Three takeaways from Northwestern’s 43-40 victory over No. 18 Notre Dame

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor


1. It’s OK to overreact a little…

I mean, what a game. Not only was Northwestern good again, Northwestern was fun again. Even the Wildcats’ more competitive losses this season were marked by a dull monotony: a cavalcade of drops, missed throws and sacks left the offense sputtering and the defense fought valiantly but couldn’t keep the dam from breaking forever. The Cats were bad in a way that left little in the way of hope that they could even keep it close against a team like Notre Dame.

And then, Saturday happened.

After losing in just about every way possible over a miserable 3-13 stretch against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, NU finally ended up on the right side of the craziness. After not scoring 30 points all year, the Wildcats hung 43 on the Fighting Irish. After failing to break 400 yards in a game, NU put up 547. The defense gave up yards and points early and late, but kept the Cats in the game with four forced turnovers. One of those aggravating third-and-long draw plays resulted in the team’s longest run of the season. Game management and special teams miscues, thorns in NU’s side all season, cost the Fighting Irish, not the Cats. The breaks finally broke the other way.

And maybe a game they shouldn’t have won but did was just what this team needed, what this program needed. It’s easy to get demoralized after losing on a Hail Mary, on a sliding field goal as time expires, on a game-winning kickoff return, on a failed two-point conversion. The Cats never quit, not when they went down 11, not when Jack Mitchell had a 42-yard attempt blocked, not when a shaky pass interference call against Jimmy Hall looked to have sealed the win for Notre Dame. Finally, finally, NU got the breaks. Long-term, that might mean more than just adding a win in the standings, than making a bowl game. And for seniors like Ibraheim Campbell and Kyle Prater, who overcame injuries to play key roles yesterday, and Trevor Siemian and Treyvon Green, who have been maligned for their performance but stepped up when it matters, it offered a modicum of redemption.

2. …but not too much

Still, the joyful aftermath of Saturday’s upset for NU should not fully take away from one thing: The Cats had no business winning that game. There are two big-picture conclusions from every football game: process and result. Iowa was a process loss and a result loss. Nebraska last year was a process win and a result loss. Penn State was a process win and a result win. What NU had been lacking — and what it finally got — was a process loss but a result win.

That’s a credit to coach Pat Fitzgerald and his team for making the plays they needed to make. But it doesn’t change the fact that if Notre Dame just kicks an extra point to go up 41-29, if the Fighting Irish don’t fumble the ball away twice inside the 5-yard line and again while running out the clock, if Cameron Dickerson’s fumble on the final drive doesn’t somehow trickle its way out of bounds, we’re talking about “what could have been” today instead of a thrilling NU victory. Enjoy the win, celebrate it, remember it, but don’t treat it as an eraser for all the problems of the first nine games.

At the same time, the process that kept the Cats close with a talented Fighting Irish team all day is one that the Cats can build on. The offense has much more to prove: Games against mediocre-to-bad Purdue and Illinois defenses, and a potential bowl game, will tell us much more about whether NU has turned a corner than the offense finally looking competent and even explosive at times after nine games of struggles. The defensive performance against an explosive Notre Dame offense was excusable but could have been better, most notably on Everett Golson’s 61-yard touchdown run to start the game.

After the ups and downs of this season, it is impossible to take anything for granted with this team. We need to see more before we can definitively say things have turned around.

3. Taking stock of the season

There will be plenty of time in the coming days and weeks to evaluate what we’ve seen from NU this season, but Saturday’s win puts things in a new light. Let’s assume, as a hypothetical, the Cats beat Purdue and Illinois. Before the season, plenty of fans — particularly older ones who have fond memories of 1995 and remember the days when the Fighting Irish were a regional, and national, power — would have been happy with a 6-6 record if it included a win over Notre Dame, but many would have also considered that a disappointment given where the Cats were two seasons ago. The offense has struggled, with many calling for a change at offensive coordinator, but NU has punched above its weight as well, most notably holding Wisconsin — which just hung 59 on Nebraska — to 14 points, its lowest total of the season, at Ryan Field.

That’s why these last two games of the season are so important. Every positive so far for the Cats this year has come with a “but” attached to it. They beat two top-20 teams, but they lost to Cal and Northern Illinois. They competed in almost every game, but they didn’t come close to winning a down Big Ten West. The defense took a step forward, but the offense took a step back. A three-game winning streak to end the year, games in which the Cats could show they are on par with a still-solid Notre Dame program and a step above the bottom-feeders of the Big Ten, would be a massive step forward given the woes of the past two seasons, a positive for NU to take into 2015 without a “but” attached.

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