Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Northwestern and the season of what could have been

I have realized in my decade as a Northwestern football fan that there are a few certainties that are unavoidable. For one, the Wildcats will break my heart. Regularly. This is unavoidable. It's a lesson I learned fairly early on in my undergraduate tenure in Evanston. For another, they will be competitive nearly every season and often exceed expectations. Finally, that competitiveness will be limited, and real, significant, actual windows for a Big Ten title or a Rose Bowl berth will be rare and close quickly.

It's fine. I've accepted that, and frankly, I'm not sure rooting for an Ohio State or a Michigan where success is so regular and expected that it loses its meaning is really for me anyway. More to the point, I've realized I will probably watch Northwestern play football some 700 more times or so before I die and letting myself get too crazed about one loss is probably an irrational and unhealthy way to experience following this team.

That last one is a message that could probably be applied to any sport, really.

And so ever since college I have tried to follow this team with measured appreciation, not letting it get me too down when they suffer a brutal loss like last season's blown 18-point lead to Illinois or when the Cats surrendered the biggest comeback in Division I-A history my senior year against Michigan State. These are simply bumps in the road and issues that will happen. Regardless, I will continue to follow them because, aside from the obvious connection of it being my alma mater, one year they will finally succeed and reach the goals we've hoped for -- Big Ten titles, the Rose Bowl, National Championship contention -- and all of this will make those years all the more satisfying.

But then I think about this year.

As the clock ticked down on Saturday's regular season finale, a 50-14 bludgeoning of the Cats' instate rivals that was as dominant as it was satisfying, all I could think about was the missed opportunity of a truly special season. Sure, we had gone 9-3 in what was expected to be a rebuilding year, and yes, we brought the Land of Lincoln Trophy -- a trinket I was once skeptical of, but now love because of its connection to Honest Abe -- back to Evanston, where it will hopefully stay for the forseeable future. And sure, depending on the outcome of Saturday night's Big Ten title game between Nebraska and Wisconsin, there is a very real shot Northwestern could wind up in the Capital One Bowl, the second most important bowl for the conference after the Granddaddy of them All. In fact, had I been told in August Northwestern would go 9-3 this season and potentially get the second-most prestigious postseason slot available to them, I would have taken that in a second.

Despite all of that, however, it's impossible not to look back at the season as it unfolded without wistful recognition that this very well could have been that special year in which the Purple went back to Pasadena. Sure the notion seems silly, and perhaps the little guys from the small school in Evanston should be satisfied with their spoils, but the facts speak for themselves. Northwestern lost three games this year. Each of those losses was to a good team. In each of those losses Northwestern held a double-digit lead in the second half and let it disappear.

Those truths are hard to accept, plain and simple. Northwestern opened 4-0 after getting through a less-than-inspiring non-conference slate, and handled Indiana with ease to start the Big Ten season. Since then the Wildcats have compiled solid 5-3 conference mark, but a bitter defeat in which Penn State turned an 11-point deficit into an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter, a tough loss to Nebraska in which Northwestern had a 21-10 lead in the third quarter and missed a potential game-winning field goal in the final minute, and a loss to Michigan so gut-wrenching it just might be the most brutal I've experienced as a fan all loom large.

It seems foolhardy to truly believe Northwestern should have been 12-0 this season, but the facts are the facts. Each game that was lost was not just winnable, but should have been won. In fact, had Northwestern closed at Nebraska alone, it would have been enough to earn the Cats a berth in the Big Ten title game. Add in the fact that Ohio State and Penn State, far and away the best teams in the opposing division, are both ineligible for postseason play and NU would have had to beat a slightly better than average Wisconsin outfit for the right to go to the Rose Bowl for just the second time in six decades.

Northwestern might just be in the Capital One Bowl, and the Wildcats just might get their first bowl victory in 64 years. Either of those would make this a special year, and it just might make it a season Northwestern fans will remember for decades down the line considering we are currently holders of the longest bowl losing streak in the country (along with some private school in South Bend, Indiana). But every time someone tells me Northwestern's had an impressive season and when I watch the Cats play their third Jan. 1 bowl game in the past four years I will think the same things I thought as the clock wound down against Illinois.

The 2012 season will always be one to remember for Northwestern. I'll just remember it for different reasons.

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