Northwestern Football 2009: What Could Have Been

Jonathan HodgesCorrespondent INovember 30, 2009

EVANSTON, IL - OCTOBER 31: Head coach Pat Fitzgerald of the Northwestern Wildcats watches his team as they take on the Penn State Nittany Lions at Ryan Field on October 31, 2009 in Evanston, Illinois. Penn State defeated Northwestern 34-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

During preseason camp prior to the 2009 campaign, I wrote a piece on the next step for Northwestern football, which I argued was winning the games that NU should win.

Looking back on the 2008 regular season, one example of such a game that the Wildcats ended up losing comes to mind; the 37-34 loss at Syracuse.

Add that to the list of games that NU has let slip away this decade, including Iowa (2000), Bowling Green (2001), Hawaii (2004), New Hampshire (2006), Duke (2007), and Indiana (2008).

At the time of the game, it was obvious that injuries were taking a toll on Northwestern, particularly on defense, and at the time it also looked like Syracuse was coming out of the funk that its been in for most of the decade. Those seemed like good reasons to write off the game as a tough road loss.

Over the past month, NU racked up two wins over ranked opponents and brought its record up to 8-4 and has found itself tied for fourth place in the conference standings (and beat the team it's tied with).

Meanwhile, Syracuse ended up at 4-8 and only had one other legitimate win down the stretch; a home upset of Rutgers. Otherwise, Syracuse has looked as bad as most people thought it would be coming into the year, closing out the season with a 56-31 loss at Connecticut.

The fact is that Northwestern had a very good chance to win that game, even after blowing a seven-point fourth quarter lead, having driven into Syracuse territory with under a minute to play and a chance to take the lead.  The ensuing Mike Kafka interception and Syracuse drive that ended in the game-winning field goal definitely left a bitter taste in NU fans' mouths, and that was before the 'Cats went 4-1 down the stretch at the end of the regular season.

If NU had won and ended 9-3 on the year, the bowl position may not be that much different and an additional non-conference win would not have propelled the 'Cats to a conference title, but that additional win may very well have led NU to be ranked following the regular season and given the Wildcats some more respect around the conference and the nation.

Instead, Northwestern still has not overcome that hurdle; win the games it should win.  This decade, it's kept NU from bowling (2004 and 2007) and kept NU from an outright conference crown and Rose Bowl trip (2000). And, it's kept Northwestern from earning the respect of fans and teams around the country.

The good teams regularly beat the teams that they should, particularly non-conference foes who are essentially penciled-in wins prior to the season. Those wins allow teams to build double-digit bowl attendance streaks (NU's longest is two, which it will match this year) and to call six or seven win seasons a "down year."

Looking at the numbers, the Wildcats have won 75 percent of the games in which it has been favored (between 2000 and 2008). That may seem like a good number, except for the fact that NU falls in the middle of the pack nationally with such a number.

For reference, here are some teams that have topped an 80 percent win rate in games that they were favored: Boise State (94.5), Oklahoma (89.3), Ohio State (86.3), TCU (86.1), USC (86.0), Texas (85.7), LSU (84.9), Nebraska (81.0), and Florida (80.9). 

All of those schools have arguably had a great decade of football (even Nebraska who went through a cool spell in the middle of the decade).

Finally, those losses are the ones that the team and the fans look back upon and think about what could have been: A should-win game that NU let slip away and usually came back to bite NU at the end of the year (particularly during bowl selections).

Hopefully the Wildcats will find a way to get that monkey off of their collective back in 2010 after they have had a shot to get rid of another monkey—the bowl game win drought—which Northwestern fans will get to hear more about over the coming weeks.

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