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Northwestern Football: The Agony and the Ecstasy (but Mostly Agony)

By Alexander Pancoe


Tommy LaSorda believes that "the difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a man's determination". Can we apply the aphorism to Wildcats, too?

Tommy LaSorda believes that “the difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a man’s determination”. Can we apply the same aphorism to Wildcats?

The four stages of grief and loss:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Depression
4. Acceptance and Hope

As a diehard Northwestern Wildcats fan (and Cubs fan, for that matter), I’ve become all-too familiar with the four stages of grief and loss. It seems most years we’re one step away from taking that next step as a program, only to find a new way to come up just a bit short. In the aftermath of a devastating loss, we quickly move from shock and denial to anger. We blame the play-calling. We ream out the coaches. We even chastise the individual players, those scholar-athletes we decide are no better than Northwestern’s purely mortal scholars. We move into the off-season, thinking about what could have been. I force myself to watch those agonizing losses, e.g. the Hail Mary loss to Nebraska, the dropped QB sneak against Ohio State. As the new season begins, I find a renewed optimism. I start thinking about how close we were last year, and how this season just has to end up different. Of course, we are Wildcats fans; we know what happens next. The vicious cycle repeats itself. Here are a few of my favorite moments from our storied Hall of Grief and Loss:

  • 2008: Northwestern dominated the first half against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl, only to enter halftime shortly after future first-round draft pick Jeremy Maclin returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown. The saddest part of it? The kick was supposed to be out-of-bounds. We went on to lose a signature bowl game in overtime despite outplaying Missouri for most of the game.
  • 2009: We had Auburn, 2010’s national champs, by the jugular in the Outback Bowl. Somehow, we kept coming back from seemingly impossible deficits (on one drive we had four fourth-down conversions) and had a shot at a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation. Naturally, we missed the field goal and lost in regulation to an exceptional SEC opponent.
  • 2010: We had a strong team rolling toward a high/middle-tier bowl. At the exact moment we knocked off 13th-ranked Iowa on Dan Persa’s game-ending touchdown pass, our heroic QB fell to the ground with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Our team sputtered the rest of the season and suffered yet-another post-season bowl loss.

Following the 2012 season, most fans felt the cycle was broken. (Just had to be, right?) While we previously relied on smart play-calling, scouting, recruiting, and playing to our full potential – now we saw an increase in the level of talent coming to Northwestern. Surely, the only trajectory was up! Then, of course, 2013 happened.

Here’s the question: is our program on the up-and-up or are we forever doomed as a top-tier also-ran? Although we point to injuries and bad luck as the chief culprits of last year’s 5-7 record, I look back at our loss to Ohio State. We outplayed them for three solid quarters only to give the game away in the fourth. We went from winning four straight to losing seven in a row. Snowball effect, anyone? Believe me, I consider myself a stats guy first and foremost. I just know that, had we beaten Ohio State, we would have played with more confidence and found a way, even with all the injuries and bad luck, to scrape together at least another two or three wins.

Despite last week’s loss to NIU, I still think we can take care of Western Illinois and Penn State as we close out September. By the time we face Wisconsin, I hope to see the renewed energy we expected from the Cats last year.

We have the talent. We have the coaches. While I see many fans quick to blame the coaches – no one was blaming the same group from 2008-2013. I cannot think of a better head coach for this program than Pat Fitzgerald and no one has been a better Northwestern ambassador than Fitz. Our defense was OK last year and most our losses came from a lack of offensive output. I expect our defense to improve under Mike Hankwitz. As for Mick McCall, he has too strong of a track record to be judged by last season alone. I’m confident our offense will come around. The stats say it will.

I am not ready to accept 2014 as 2013 Redux. I was at first in denial when we lost to Cal, then angry, and spent much of the week depressed. Same with NIU. Next Saturday, we will tear out the Leathernecks’ eponymous necks and drag their bodies back to our caves to feed our young. Because, of course, we are Wildcats.