If there is one thing I learned from my years covering the Northwestern Wildcats, it's that each team has an identity.
The 2005 team always had a comeback in them, as was shown against Iowa when the 'Cats recovered on onside kick. That was the game now-Minnesota Viking Chad Greenway laid out now-Chicago Bear Brett Basanez with a helmet to helmet hit, tacking on 15 yards, and giving Northwestern new life. Basanez later winked at Greenway. That was Baz's team, and everyone knew it.
After the season, Randy Walker passed away, and the Wildcats dedicated the 2006 season to him. They struggled mightily, going 4-8, but a win in the opener against Walker's alma-mater Miami University was a nice consolation. That team was learning, as it was Pat Fitzgerald's first year.
2007 was another learning curve, but almost everyone returned in 2008. The 2008 team seemed destined with last minute wins over Iowa and Minnesota. Everything seemed to go right on the way to an Alamo Bowl appearance and a 9-4 record.
After jumping out to a solid, yet almost stumbling, 2-0 start, Northwestern lost two straight games to Syracuse and Minnesota in the 4th quarter. The identity of this team so far is that it can't finish.
This week against Purdue will provide a chance for the Wildcats to prove me wrong.
Wildcat fans want to see a team that doesn't let up off the gas. When it gets to the 4th quarter, the pedal should be floored.
Tackling has been a problem all season (Fitzgerald called it, bluntly, "awful...awful."), but a lot of the defensive issues have to do with injuries and new players. It's important for Northwestern to come out fast and tackle well, as Purdue's two-headed running attack will easily slip poor tackling and turn them into big gains.
The identity of the 2009 team rests in the fate of Saturday's game in West Lafayette. Nobody is saying it is a must-win, but it's probably a need-to-win.