The world certainly has turned for Northwestern football. I bore witness to exactly eight wins in the entire four years that I was on campus, from 1986 through 1989. There were four wins in my freshman year, and four in the following three years.
We threw marshmallows at each other in the stands during football games to keep our minds off what was happening on the field.
Every victory at home, no matter who the opponent was, was grounds for running onto the field and tearing down the goal posts.
My senior year, 1989, was so bad that the final two games were lost by a combined score of 169-28. Talk about ending with a whimper.
But things have turned around since then, beginning with 1995 and stretching into the foreseeable future. Coach-for-life Pat Fitzgerald has pointed out, correctly, that everyone under the age of 40 only knows Northwestern as a winner. And that’s a change for the better, as far as I can see.
But today’s win against Michigan State marked the eighth win on the season. I should be thrilled at the progress that’s been made over the past 20 years, right?
Well, not so fast. Each of the three games that Northwestern has lost this year was as a result of a fourth quarter meltdown. Double-digit leads were surrendered against Penn State in Happy Valley, against Nebraska in Evanston, and–most shockingly of all–against Michigan just last weekend. If even two of those three games were won, Northwestern is 10-1 and making plans to play in the Big Ten’s first championship game this year. So an 8-3 record could be as much as 11-0 instead. It’s very hard to see this season as anything other than a disappointment, when viewed through that lens.
But it is what it is. Illinois comes in next week, and while I hope the game is competitive, I would be shocked if it actually was. Then comes the ritual of accepting a bowl invitation, travelling to wherever the game will be, and then losing the game. I won’t ever take being in a bowl game for granted (how could I, when the dark days of the late 80s are considered?), but you play the games to win, after all. That’s really the only way to redeem what has been an agonizing eight-win season. And I really did just type that. Wow.