Football: In a season of ups and downs, close games remain the constant for ‘Cardiac Cats’


Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Drew Luckenbaugh is paraded by teammates. The sophomore kicker’s game-winning field goal against Nebraska was part of yet another close game for Northwestern.

Jonah Dylan, Managing Editor


After a 31-17 win over Wisconsin that solidified Northwestern as Big Ten West frontrunners, Clayton Thorson alluded to an old nickname for the Wildcats’ program.

“Around here, a lot of times we’re called the Cardiac Cats,” the senior quarterback said. “I don’t know how much we like that name. But we haven’t given anyone any reason not to call us that, so it’s nice to get a win like that.”

The 14-point margin — matched only in a 21-7 loss to Duke in early September — would stick as the largest in any NU game this season. The Cats have had 10 games this season decided by 10 points or fewer, while Ohio State, their opponent in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game, has had just three.

After NU commandeered a wild win at Notre Dame in 2014, longtime radio announcer Dave Eanet decreed that “the Cardiac Cats are back!” And they haven’t really gone anywhere since. Last season, NU became the first team in college football history to win three straight games in overtime. This season, win or lose, almost every game has been close.

But within the confines of his corner office in Ryan Fieldhouse, coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t plan for that.

“I would prefer it not to be that way,” he said this week. “Trust me, that is not by design and/or for TV ratings. It just ends up being the way that it is sometimes.”

And though the Cats have had a successful season that has earned them a chance to play on the first Saturday of December, the close battles haven’t been confined to a particular outcome.

Against Rutgers and Nebraska, NU struggled through three quarters before finally picking it up at the last possible moment, much to the chagrin of the purple- and white-clad fans. But in close contests against Michigan and Akron, the Cats played well to start the day but faded down the stretch. In other words, there’s no science to why every game seems to be a close one: it just happens, game after game, year after year.

Some players though, relish the continuous stream of close games and have a more positive outlook on the nickname than Fitzgerald.

“To be able to win in the fourth quarter, with that Cardiac Cats nickname, it’s better to win a game in the fourth quarter than it is to lose a game,” defensive end Joe Gaziano said. “So I think we’re fortunate to have that nickname because it means we’re playing well in the fourth and executing down the stretch.”

Indeed, NU has relied on its defense to execute down the stretch in close games against Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois. But the Cats have also needed offensive explosions in key moments, like a 99-plus yard drive to tie the game with seconds remaining against the Cornhuskers.

Junior receiver Bennett Skowronek went so far as to say he likes the nickname.

“I like it. It’s just find a way to win,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be pretty, we don’t have to blow every team out, but at the end of the day, in the fourth quarter, making those plays that make the difference.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz doesn’t particularly care about the nickname.

“Hey, whatever the fans think,” he said. “As long as we keep winning, we don’t care.”

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