The Northwestern Wildcats defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes 14-10 on Saturday evening, clinching the school’s first-ever Big Ten West Division title and its first-ever appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game. It was just the latest chapter in the Wildcats’ remarkable turnaround this year.
Northwestern started off the season slow, dropping three of its opening four games. The Wildcats won a tough game against Purdue in the Thursday night opener, but followed that up with a terrible stretch. After a poor game against Duke, Northwestern managed to lose to Akron in what will go down as one of the most shocking upsets of the season. The Wildcats held a nine-point lead late in the third quarter, but two fourth-quarter defensive scores for Akron spurred the upset. Northwestern followed that with a tight loss to Michigan, something that looks better as the season goes on.
As much as the Wildcats have struggled in nonconference play–they also lost their final nonconference game to Notre Dame last week—they were just as good in conference games. The loss to Michigan hurt, but it was a close game against a good team. Since then, Northwestern has beaten three ranked Big Ten teams–Michigan State, Wisconsin, and now Iowa. The Wildcats almost managed to lose to Rutgers in the middle of that stretch, though they managed to survive that game.
The game against Iowa went the same way that all of Northwestern’s Big Ten games seem to go. The Wildcats lean on a strong defense, try to use their running game, and get one or two big plays when needed. This win was a defensive struggle, capped by a huge touchdown throw from Clayton Thorson to Bennett Showroneck.
Big Ten Championship Game
It is never good for a conference if a team that does poorly out of conference does well in conference–let alone wins it. Northwestern is the only Big Ten West team with one conference loss. Everyone else has at least three, and Northwestern holds the tiebreakers over all other contenders. Therefore, the Wildcats have booked their spot in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis on December 1st.
We don’t yet know who the Wildcats will face, but we know it’s only one of two options. Either Ohio State or Michigan will win the Big Ten East. If Ohio State loses to Maryland next week, then Michigan will clinch the division, assuming the Wolverines beat Indiana next week. If both of those teams win, then the Ohio State vs Michigan game will also determine the Big Ten East champion. Remember, Northwestern did almost beat Michigan earlier this year, so that’s a matchup the Wildcats probably won’t mind. (Then again, with Ohio State’s recent struggles, the Wildcats might be okay playing the Buckeyes as well.)
Northwestern has no chance at making the College Football Playoff, but a win on December 1st will earn the school its first Rose Bowl bid since 1995. Given the parity and relative mediocrity of the Pac-12, the Wildcats would have a decent hope for winning its first Rose Bowl (or any major bowl) since 1948. The season might have started out slow for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad, but it has definitely picked up late–and the Northwestern Wildcats have the division title to show for it.