Schott: Beating Rutgers is crucial for Northwestern. It may define the remainder of the Wildcats’ 2021 season.

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Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Pat Fitzgerald looks on. This Saturday, Fitzgerald and Northwestern will face Rutgers, a game that could greatly impact the trajectory of the Wildcats’ 2021 season.

Drew Schott , Gameday Editor

Northwestern is at a crossroads. 

The Wildcats are so far winless against Power Five opponents and Nebraska just dealt them a 56-7 drubbing. NU’s defense has given up the most yards in the Big Ten this season and the second-most points.

Yet, positive signs remain. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski is improving each week under center. Graduate linebacker Chris Bergin leads the conference in tackles. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the Cats practiced competitively during the bye week and continued building depth.

As the Cats (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) prepare to face Rutgers (3-3, 0-3) at Ryan Field on Homecoming weekend, the four quarters ahead of them may very well define the 2021 campaign. 

In three of the last four seasons, NU has suffered at least three losses through its first five games. In 2018, the Cats started 1-3 before finishing the regular season with a 7-1 record and the Big Ten West Division title. The following year, though, they finished 3-9.

This year, a division title is virtually out of the picture, since West foe No. 2 Iowa is 6-0.

But a win over the Scarlet Knights would not only propel the Cats back to .500 ahead of a clash against No. 8 Michigan at the Big House. It would also demonstrate that even though NU may not repeat the success of 2018 and 2020, the Cats are not backsliding toward a 2019-like performance. Instead, the squad is engineering an in-season turnaround. 

No matter the end result, this weekend’s Big Ten clash will resonate in the coming weeks for NU. 

A victory would mean NU has the talent and capability to knock off the mid-level conference teams and potentially pave the way to its sixth bowl game in seven years.

Although the Cats aren’t favored in any of their remaining games, five of their seven remaining opponents have at least two losses. If NU falls to Michigan and Iowa — the last ranked opponents on the schedule as of now — but beat four of these unranked squads, it will finish 6-6 and earn bowl eligibility. 

A defeat by Rutgers — who dropped their last three games to the Wolverines, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State by a combined score of 103-39 — would not be catastrophic to the Cats’ postseason chances. Yet falling to 2-4 would place the team in a precarious situation, ramping up the pressure ahead of its hardest game of the season at one of the most energetic venues in college football.

History is not on NU’s side, either. The squad is 2-3 in its last five games coming off a week with no regular season game. However, both wins came against unranked programs like the Scarlet Knights.

Fitzgerald knows what to expect come Saturday. He and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano are good friends and have known each other for a long time. 

“(They’re) explosive on offense and creative and really disruptive, physical on defense,” Fitzgerald said. “(There’s) a lot of pressure on us to be able to execute a lot better than we did in Lincoln and give ourselves a chance to win a football game.” 

Pressure is certainly on, especially since the Cats have made the Big Ten Championship Game in two of the past three seasons. A trip to Indianapolis may not be in store in 2021, but a win this weekend would provide assurance that NU can turn its season around. 

And it may have an energetic and passionate environment for the watershed moment. A Homecoming crowd will be on hand at Ryan Field. The 1995 Rose Bowl team and the 1996 squad that won a share of the conference title will be honored.

The moment for the Cats to change the narrative of their 2021 season is here. No matter how it is written, the reverberations from Saturday’s game will be felt long after NU and the Scarlet Knights leave the field. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @dschott328 

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