Commentary: What Could Have Been
by Jonathan Hodges
During preseason camp prior to the 2009 campaign, I wrote a
piece on the next step for Northwestern football, which I argued was winning
the games that NU should win.
Looking back on the 2008 regular season,
one example of such a game that the Wildcats ended up losing comes to mind: the
37-34 loss at Syracuse. Add that to the list of games that NU has let slip away
this decade, including Iowa (2000), Bowling Green (2001), Hawaii (2004), New
Hampshire (2006), Duke (2007), and Indiana (2008).
At the time of the
game, it was obvious that injuries were taking a toll on Northwestern,
particularly on defense, and at the time it also looked like Syracuse was coming
out of the funk that it's been in for most of the decade. Those seemed like
good reasons to write off the game as a tough road loss.
Over the past
month, NU racked up two wins over ranked opponents and brought its record up to
8-4 and has found itself tied for fourth place in the conference standings (and
beat the team it's tied with). Meanwhile, Syracuse ended up at 4-8 and only had
one other legitimate win down the stretch: a home upset of Rutgers; Otherwise,
Syracuse has looked as bad as most people thought they would be coming into the
year, closing out their year with a 56-31 loss at Connecticut.
is that Northwestern had a very good chance to win that game, even after blowing
a seven point fourth quarter lead, having driven into Syracuse territory with
under a minute to play and a chance to take the lead. The ensuing Mike Kafka
interception and Syracuse drive that ended in the game-winning field goal
definitely left a bitter taste in NU fans' mouths, and that was before the 'Cats
went 4-1 down the stretch at the end of the regular season.
If NU had won
and ended 9-3 on the year, the bowl position may not be that much different and
an additional non-conference win would not have propelled the 'Cats to a
conference title, but that additional win may very well have led NU to be ranked
following the regular season and given the Wildcats some more respect around the
conference and the nation.
Instead, Northwestern still has not overcome
that hurdle: win the games it should win. This decade, it's kept NU from
bowling (2004 and 2007) and kept NU from an outright conference crown and Rose
Bowl trip (2000). And, it's kept Northwestern from earning the respect of fans
and teams around the country.
The good teams regularly beat the teams
that they should, particularly non-conference foes who are essentially
penciled-in wins prior to the season. Those wins allow teams to build
double-digit bowl attendance streaks (NU's longest is two, which it will match
this year) and to call six or seven win seasons a "down year."
the numbers, the Wildcats have won 75 percent of the games in which it has been
favored (between 2000 and 2008). That may seem like a good number, except for
the fact that NU falls in the middle of the pack nationally with such a
For reference, here are some teams have topped an 80 percent win
rate in games that they are favored: Boise State (94.5), Oklahoma (89.3), Ohio
State (86.3), TCU (86.1), USC (86.0), Texas (85.7), LSU (84.9), Nebraska (81.0),
and Florida (80.9). All of those schools have arguably had a great decade of
football (even Nebraska who went through a cool spell, for them, in the middle
of the decade).
Finally, those losses are the ones that the team and the
fans look back upon and think about what could have been: A should-win game that
NU let slip away and usually came back to bite NU at the end of the year
(particularly during bowl selections).
Hopefully the Wildcats will find a
way to get that monkey off of their collective back in 2010 after they have had
a shot to get rid of another monkey: the bowl game win drought, which
Northwestern fans will get to hear more about over the coming weeks.
Previous jhodges commentary
is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com. His commentary
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