After giving myself and the rest of Wildcat Nation time to recover from the heartbreaking end to the 2009 season, it's time to review the season that was, which is a pleasure as Northwestern exceeded most reasonable expectations going into the season.
After losing every starting offensive skill position player to graduation from last year's squad, the bar was set relatively low, although most expected NU to still reach .500 and make a lower tier bowl.
Like last year, though, the Wildcats seemingly ignored the pundits' thoughts as they turned things around down the stretch to reach the eight-win plateau, propelling them to a Jan. 1st Outback Bowl appearance, their first New Year's Day bowl game since the Citrus Bowl following the 1996 Big Ten co-Championship season. And we all know what happened in that game.
To start off the year, Northwestern easily demolished FCS/I-AA bottom-feeder Towson, and looked to be headed to a record nine consecutive nonconference regular season wins (they had a five game winning streak going into the year and four win-able games on the slate in 2009). They continued rolling with a dedication to running the football (NU ran it on over two thirds of offensive snaps through the first two games) and took a 21-0 first half lead over Eastern Michigan in the second game of the year.
Then things got interesting. The defense suddenly looked porous as EMU used the ground game to come back and tie the game at 24 late in the fourth quarter. Northwestern needed a decent kick return and big drive to put kicker Stefan Demos in position to hit the game-winner with six seconds left on the clock, making that NU's first game-winning field goal since the 2001 win over Michigan State. Unfortunately, such a close win over an inferior opponent didn't do a lot to put confidence in this year's 'Cats (EMU ended up going 0-12 in 2009).
The next game was a trip to the Carrier Dome to face a down Syracuse squad that was rebuilding under a new head coach. In fact, five of Northwestern's first six opponents had new head coaches, along with NU's bowl opponent. The Wildcats' defense, looking to be one of the best units in the past decade with plenty of experience and talent returning, experienced multiple costly injuries that forced a couple of redshirt freshmen into service against the Orange.
Unfortunately for NU, an early fumble and that injury-ridden defense allowed Syracuse to jump out front 17-0. Amazingly, though, NU's Mike Kafka responded by completing his first 16 passes to set a school record and ended up throwing for 390 yards and three TDs on the day and even caught a TD pass from Andrew Brewer. The Wildcats used this pass-based offensive attack to take a 34-27 lead in the fourth, but couldn't hang on, with Kafka's interception late ending in Syracuse's game-winning field goal drive. The loss left Northwestern fans scratching their heads about how the 'Cats could once again blow a game to a seemingly inferior opponent (see Indiana in 2008 and Duke in 2007).
Things didn't get any easier with Minnesota coming to town the following week to kick of Big Ten play, as the Gophers used a dedication to the run and WR Eric Decker to win despite Northwestern once again holding a lead in the fourth quarter (two costly Mike Kafka fumbles deep in NU territory in that period sealed the game). NU then headed to Purdue to face a hard-luck squad that was 1-3, but lost those three games by very slim margins. Once again, NU got behind early (21-3), but surged thanks to a deluge of turnovers by Purdue (five fumbles and one interception). The 'Cats turned those into points, finally taking the lead with just over two minutes left in the game and holding off a Purdue drive to the Northwestern five yard line for the win.
The Wildcats, then at 3-2, headed home to face winless Miami (OH), who the Wildcats defeated with a formidable defensive effort: not allowing the RedHawks to score until just over one minute left in the game. Although much like the EMU game, the poor offensive showing didn't build much faith in NU going into a much tougher second half of the season. At 4-2, Northwestern's bowl hopes weren't that bright and at signs were pointing to a lower tier bowl at best.
Kicking off the second half of the season, NU traveled to MSU to face a formidable Spartans team. Thanks to a goal line stand and a second quarter TD pass to Andrew Brewer, the 'Cats led 7-0 going into the second half, but a few mistakes allowed Michigan State to score 24 straight points to essentially seal the game early in the fourth quarter. That loss left the 'Cats at 4-3 and set up a homecoming showdown against Indiana that was essentially a bowl elimination game.
Like Northwestern fans have become accustomed, the Wildcats love to live up to that Cardiac 'Cats nickname, and the Indiana game would exemplify that. Northwestern once again dug themselves into a seemingly insurmountable hole, facing a 28-3 deficit midway through the second quarter. But the Wildcats never gave up, with Mike Kafka leading two quick touchdown-scoring drives before halftime to cut the deficit to 11.
The defense played its part by keeping Indiana off the scoreboard the rest of the way, including getting a safety in the third quarter off a blocked punt and keeping Indiana out of the end zone as they went for it on fourth and goal late in the game, coming up just a couple of yards shy of the goal line. The defensive star of the game was walk-on sophomore Ricky Weina who was forced into action thanks to multiple injuries at the cornerback position. And Kafka once again led NU on a drive to put kicker Stefan Demos in position to nail the game-winner with 21 seconds left.
The game suddenly put new life in the the Wildcats' season, although they would have to face a formidable Penn State squad the following week on Halloween. Northwestern came out hot on the arm and legs of Mike Kafka, going out to a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter. The Wildcats led 13-10 at halftime, but the key play of the game was in the second quarter when QB Mike Kafka tweaked his hamstring on a QB-keeper. As Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno said after the game about PSU adjustments in the second half, "The adjustment we made is their quarterback got hurt." Penn State tied it up early in the third quarter with a field goal and then tore off three touchdowns in a span of less than four minutes in the fourth quarter to run away with the game.
At that point, Northwestern headed to Iowa to face the No. 4 (BCS) team in the nation, Iowa, who was undefeated and looking forward to their bout with Ohio State the following week for the conference title as NU would seemingly be just a speedbump on the way (nevermind that NU had won three of the last four meetings between the two teams). In typical Northwestern fashion, they essentially spotted Iowa 10 points before six minutes had elapsed in the game. With Northwestern's offense struggling against a stout Iowa D, NU needed a spark. Early in the second quarter, they got one.
The biggest play of the season for Northwestern came on defense deep in Iowa territory. Hawkeye QB Ricky Stanzi ran a naked bootleg in the end zone, but NU DE Corey Wootton, who spent most of the season a shell of his former self, recovering from knee surgery following an injury sustained in the Alamo Bowl a year earlier, was not fooled. He took off after Stanzi, sacking him in the end zone and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Northwestern teammate Marshall Thomas to put NU on the board. Stanzi also injured his ankle on the clean tackle, forcing him to leave the game (he would not return until Iowa's bowl game). Keep in mind that Northwestern was also down a QB, with Mike Kafka playing but unable to move too much sporting the hamstring injury.
Backup QB Dan Persa tossed a TD pass to Drake Dunsmore on Northwestern's next drive that started on an interception of Iowa's backup QB on his first pass attempt, giving the Wildcats a lead that they would not relinquish. The 'Cats would add a field goal in the third quarter and use a formidable defensive effort to seal one of the biggest upsets in school history and the biggest road win by Northwestern since knocking off Wisconsin in 2000. The win suddenly propelled NU to bowl eligiblity at 6-4 and put the 'Cats in a position to make some noise down the home stretch.
The 'Cats then headed to Champaign for the first battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy after the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk was retired following last year's NU-Illinois tilt. Despite a bad day for kicker Stefan Demos, who missed three field goal attempts, Northwestern won, thanks to running off 21 straight points in the middle quarters and holding off the Illini on a Sherrick McManis pick that was very close, but reviewed and upheld. That win virtually guaranteed the Wildcats a second straight bowl berth for only the second time in school history, but the Wildcats wanted more with No. 16 Wisconsin coming to Evanston for the regular season finale.
Northwestern finally started things off strong, taking a 10-0 lead thanks to precise passing from Kafka, and even added some trickery in the second quarter with a 38 yard TD pass from WR Zeke Markshausen to Sidney Stewart to open up a 24-14 lead. NU would also add a FG before the half. In the second half, the 'Cats were held to two more field goals, and while Wisconsin made an effort to claw back, Northwestern once again sealed the game with an interception, this time by Jordan Mabin as the 'Cats finished off the regular season with a 33-31 win to give them a three-game win streak and an 8-4 record going into the bowl game.
And in a bit of a surprise, Northwestern at 8-4 "jumped" Wisconsin at 9-3 for a spot in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1st, somewhat avenging snubbings of the Wildcats by that bowl in 2000 and 2008. This set up an interesting game against SEC opponent, Auburn, which the pundits again said Northwestern had no chance against.
Let's just say that set up one of the craziest and most memorable games of all time, a game in which Northwestern clawed back from 14 point second half deficits twice and eluded a certain loss multiple times late in the fourth quarter and in overtime. Unfortunately, the 'Cats ended up losing as they went for the win on a fake field goal from the five yard line in overtime, coming up two yards short of Northwestern's first bowl win in 61 years.
It was quite a season indeed, featuring the biggest comeback in school history, NU coming back from a 25 point deficit against Indiana, one of the biggest upsets in school history, a win at No. 4 Iowa ruining their undefeated season, and one of the, if not the craziest games ever, the Outback Bowl loss to Auburn.
Despite suffering a slew of injuries, particularly on defense, backups and even third-stringers responded to propel the 'Cats to victory when they needed it most. And on offense, the Wildcats managed to score 25.9 points per game despite losing every offensive skill position starter from the previous season. That even likely propelled QB Mike Kafka to a potential NFL career despite starting at Northwestern for just one full season.
The fact is that Northwestern football is now in the midst of one of the most sustained runs of success in program history under the still-young head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats will head into 2010 looking to head to their third consecutive bowl, something that hasn't been done in NU history. Fitz is running the program the right way and is bringing sustained success to Northwestern, something that will only help raise the perception of the program going forward.
Now the question is when will fans follow the success of the team and begin filling up Ryan Field? 2009's average attendance was the lowest since 1980, and, yes, that span includes the longest losing streak in Div. I-A/FCS history, and when Fitz will lead his team to a Big Ten championship.