It has been a season unlike any other for the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats football team as they get set to play the Ohio State Buckeyes Saturday night. The Wildcats, led by Big Ten Coach of the Year Pat Fitzgerald, will make their first-ever appearance in the Big Ten Championship game. In a season that has been marred by surprises, a win on Saturday would be the biggest of them all.
Northwestern started their season on August 30th playing on the road against Purdue on ESPN. In a thrilling game, the Wildcats came out victorious 30-27. Their high spirits faded following two consecutive letdown losses at home against Duke and Akron.
Following the Akron loss, the team was dealt bad news when starting running back Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire due to a serious spinal injury. Coupled with the two losses, the Wildcats were not given much of chance hosting the Michigan Wolverines. They shocked the country as they opened up 17-0 lead against the Wolverines only to lose 20-17 on a last-second field goal.
With a 1-3 record, Fitzgerald’s team began a surprise turnaround in October. They won four consecutive games including a road win against No.20 Michigan state on October 6th and a home win against a ranked Wisconsin team on October 27th. The streak was broken a week later when they lost a tough game to the third-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish 31-21.
The Wildcats would have their best day of the season the following week on the road against the No.21 Iowa Hawkeyes. Coming in as heavy underdogs, they pulled off a 14-10 upset and clinched the Big Ten West division due to losses by Wisconsin and Purdue. Following the win over Iowa, Northwestern capped its regular season with wins against Minnesota and Illinois.
Heading into Saturday’s game in Indianapolis against the Buckeyes, the Wildcats are heavy underdogs but could be overlooked. They have beaten three ranked teams this season while only losing by 13 combined points to teams that were ranked in the top four throughout the season. Northwestern has been successful due to a reliant defense, quality quarterback play by Clayton Thorson, and a tough running game.
Ohio State has been given much praise this week following their dismantling of No. 4 ranked Michigan at home 62-39. Although they looked highly impressive, the Buckeyes have had several letdowns this season either leading to their defeat or near upsets. They were upset on the road against Purdue and only managed to beat Maryland and Nebraska by a combined six points.
A win over Ohio State would be a historical one for Northwestern and would have a major effect on the college football playoff picture. An Ohio State loss would guarantee no Big Ten team representation in the playoffs and would shake up the bowl schedule, especially for New Years Day.
For the Wildcats, they would be outright Big Ten Champions for the first time since 1995. They would also most likely represent their conference in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day for the first time since 1995. It would be the biggest bowl game the team has played in since 1997 when they played Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.
Saturday night’s game will be a special one for all those involved with Northwestern football as many believed this was not possible following the Akron loss. Win or lose, the Wildcats have a good chance of being invited to a New Year’s Day bowl game whether be the Rose Bowl or the Outback Bowl. Even though the odds are against them beating Ohio State, the regular season should be an indicator to never count out Northwestern.