The Northwestern Wildcats will kick off their 2018 football season in front of a national audience Thursday night taking on the Purdue Boilermakers in West Lafayette. The game will be the first big game of the 2018 college football season as it will be shown on ESPN. Although its just the first game, Northwestern’s performance Thursday night can make or break on their season including their bowl aspirations
The Wildcats under head coach Pat Fitzgerald have been one of the more consistently good programs in the last decade. The school has appeared in eight bowl games since 2008, winning three of their last four bowl appearances. The other consistent has been the Wildcats inability to win and perform well in big games when playing in nationally televised games.
It has been this recurring trend that has cost Northwestern not only chances to play in the Big Ten Championship game but has also hurt their chances of playing in a prominent bowl game. In 2015 and 2017, the team won nine games only to appear in one New Year’s Day bowl game which was the Outback Bowl against Tennessee. It was bad losses against ranked opponents in nationally televised games that stood out in both seasons.
In 2015, No.13 Wildcats traveled to Ann Arbor to take on the No.18 Michigan Wolverines were they blown out 38-0. The following week against 17th ranked Iowa, they lost 20-17 at home on ABC. It was these two games that landed them in the Outback Bowl even though lesser qualified teams from the Big Ten played in the more prominent bowl games that season.
Last season, Northwestern lost by 10 points or more against top 10 ranked Wisconsin and Penn State teams early in the season. The Wildcats were dominant down the stretch including an upset against a ranked Michigan State team to finish with nine wins again. This time there was no New Year’s day Bowl which is a rarity for a nine-win team. Northwestern was relegated to playing in the Music City Bowl two days before New Years.
This season, Northwestern has a tough schedule as they will play currently ranked teams such as Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. These game will be most likely be premiere televised games, but Northwestern will need to build momentum with a big win Thursday night against Purdue. Its highly unlikely that they beat all these prominent teams, but good showings could land them a better Bowl game this year if they qualify.
Fitzgerald has built a respectable program that now expects to appear in a bowl game at the end of each season. Now they have won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in the school’s history, its time for bigger aspirations. Winning the Big Ten Championship, playing for a New Year’s Six Bowl Game, and even contending for National Championship all need to be the next goals.
These are hard aspirations to achieve, but the Wildcats can take a step in the right direction winning in primetime to open the college football season and change their stigma with the big game.