Commentary: In College Football, Every Week Is Different
by Jonathan Hodges

This commentary is a reaction not only to 'Cats fans who are still dismayed that NU came out of Durham with a close win last week, but to those on the national scene who have suddenly become very suspect about Ohio State after struggling for most of the game against Ohio.  Since these two instances are of the most interest to 'Cats fans and those following college football on a national level this week, I'll focus on them.

Northwestern got dominated in terms of statistics, but took advantage of Duke's mistakes and finished off red zone opportunities on its way to a road win over a team that upset the 'Cats last year.  Meanwhile, in Columbus, OSU struggled most of the way (and was trailing as late as the 4th quarter) before taking care of business late in the game and sealing the win; most notable was the loss of star RB Chris Wells for the Buckeyes for the game, and many were already concerned about his loss.  Following these two close victories, 'Cats fans have become relatively worried about NU's chances this year and are even more wary of the ability of the offense, and on a national level, many are now doubting OSU (they fell to a #5 ranking in the Coaches and AP polls this week and are 10.5 point underdogs against USC in the opening line).  I realize that close victories when one expected both teams to put it in cruise control can be a big nerve-racking, but I have to ask what gives?

Yes, at this point in the season all we have to go on is a sample size of two games, which is better than one, but still doesn't tell anyone too much in terms of trends.  Many were considering Duke and Ohio to be pushovers for NU and OSU, respectively, while ignoring the fact that both of those Big Ten teams have had trouble with such "lesser" competition in the past.  Obviously, NU lost to Duke last year, and the fact is that Duke looks like a much improved team with a new head coach and experienced and talented players all over their roster - they will definitely win a few more games this year.  Ohio University is also led by an experienced head coach, Frank Solich, and have had some success in recent years, appearing in the MAC championship and going to a bowl game since 2005 (when Solich was hired and when NU last faced them).  I definitely would not consider either team to be a pushover, especially defensively - Duke has a very talented front 7 and Ohio has an experienced and solid group of defenders who have played well as a unit.

Also, don't count out the game situations: NU had to travel down to Duke (their furthest regular season road trip in 2008) and face them on a hot, sticky summer night - which was preceded by the passing of a tropical storm through the area.  Any time that a team has to travel it puts them at a disadvantage, but going into unfamiliar settings makes it even tougher.  For OSU, there is no doubt that, at least subconsciously, the players were thinking ahead to the big matchup against USC that comes up this Saturday.  Also, there was all of the hoopla surrounding Wells' injury and if he would go this week or wait until traveling to USC to play.  Meanwhile, Ohio was undoubtedly getting "up" for a big intra-state game in the 'shoe as they knew they could take a shot at the big dog school in the state of Ohio.

So, what happened was that both teams faced a bit of a letdown (so it seems), but both NU and OSU showed perceverence in the face of adversity.  Northwestern was being outgained almost the entire game, the offense wasn't in sync, and Duke took the lead late in the game.  But the 'Cats defense held just enough to seal the win for NU, and the offense took advantage of good situations and punched the ball in once they were in the red zone to take the lead and the victory.  Meanwhile, OSU wasn't going much of anywhere on offense but in the end they regrouped and put together 2 fourth quarter drives to take the lead and then seal the game.  That experience under pressure proved to the teams that they could win despite being down in the 4th quarter, and will be extremely valuable down the line this season as they look back and have a confidence builder to lean upon.

Given all of that, it brings me to the main point of my article - in college football, each week is different.  Unlike the pros in the NFL, these are college students who are between 18 and 23 years old and have something called school to deal with, along with the rest of their lives.  And, being in college, they of course desire to lead a life outside of football and school - despite the fact that in I-A/FBS football that is a very difficult thing to do.  Also, consider that the entire point of college football, which is lost on such semi-pro teams like OSU, is to develop the student-athletes both on and off the field.  So, what you see on the field is a direct result of development during practice - which is how one can definitely see some players grow and learn as the season progresses.  And, like I already mentioned, don't count out the other off-the-field portions of these students' lives which can definitely affect the performance on the field no matter how much the coaches try to dissociate the football field from the rest.

So, for guys juggling so many things (school, life, football), there is no surprise that performance can vary from week to week - and despite the fact that it is a team sport with 10 other guys on the field at one time, the performance of one guy can affect the entire team, and many have said that different moods are contageous in the locker room.  The final point I make is injuries: even "minor" injuries can affect a player, and unlike the pros where they can reach down and grab another top-caliber player, college teams don't have the same option becuase undoubtedly many players on the bench are younger and less experienced at this level as they haven't had the same development time.  And as the season progresses, there are more and more knicks and bruises that can pile up and determine the outcome of the season.  Just look at the news out of the NFL today with New England QB Brady possibly out for the year and everyone suddenly re-evaluating that team.  Imagine if his backup weren't a pro backup QB who's been in the league and practicing basically year-round for several seasons, but instead a freshman or sophomore in college who hasn't even hit drinking age and hasn't played a down of competitive football since high school.

In conclusion, the key to both NU, who will be looking to build some momentum going into their Big Ten season, and OSU, who will be looking to make a statement on a national stage, is to respond by improving over last week's respective performances: put it behind them, learn from it, and focus on beating the opponent at hand.  All that matters at the end of the day is the score on the scoreboard, and good teams find ways to win.  Just look at NU's most successful teams who lived up to their billing as the Cardiac 'Cats, and OSU's recent national title which featured multiple wins by the skin of their teeth.  This excitement is ultimately what college football fans live for - virtually anything can happen any week.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.