Northwestern was looking for a statement win. But is it possible that they didn't need a win to make that statement?
A win over Ohio State would have certainly vaulted the Wildcats to the next level, to the status of a top 10 team in the year 2013 and to an unknown elevation as a program for years to come. That didn't happen, as Ohio State came back to win, 40-30, on Saturday night at Ryan Field. But a national television audience got to see that Northwestern has already taken giant steps.
"We're close," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We're knocking on the door, we've just got to knock that bad boy down. And all of our goals are still ahead of us. I think we showed everybody in the conference and the country that this group of young men can play."
No longer might people think, "Northwestern? That team that took 50-plus years to win a bowl game?" Now, maybe it'll be, "Northwestern? That team that gave Ohio State all it could handle and deserves that No. 16 ranking?"
That's all hypothetical, of course, but look at what the Wildcats did Saturday. They showed off their exceptional arsenal of offensive weapons, with quarterback Kain Colter completing every pass he threw and scoring two touchdowns — one rushing and one receiving. The other quarterback, Trevor Siemian, threw a critical fourth-quarter interception, but completed 13 of 18 passes for 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Running back Venric Mark returned from injury looking strong as ever, running over one Ohio State defender and stiff-arming another. Rashad Lawrence became the latest Northwestern receiver to have a breakout game, catching eight passes for 149 yards.
On defense, Northwestern forced Braxton Miller — a preseason Heisman favorite — to turn the ball over three times and contribute zero touchdowns, something Miller did just once last season.
As was pretty evident from Fitzgerald's post game comments and those of his team, this game had no shortage of positives. And there's no reason to believe this wasn't the kind of statement this Northwestern team was looking to make.
The tests keep coming for Northwestern. The Cats go on the road next weekend to Wisconsin, a team that's suffered a pair of tough losses in its past three games and will be coming off a bye. And the Big Ten schedule marches on from there. Lawrence said that the Cats can't let Ohio State beat them twice.
But instead of this being a season-ruiner — as an Ohio State loss might have been described for the Buckeyes — this could be considered a launching point. Or as Fitzgerald called it, "a momentary lapse."
"There's a team getting on the bus going back to Columbus that knows they just got by a pretty darn good football team," Fitzgerald said. "That's what I'll take from this game."