Gravy Train

Northwestern’s 27-0 beatdown of Minnesota on Saturday announced the ‘Cats as a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West. Heck, after the team vaulted to #13 in the AP poll this week, it’s hard to argue against them being a playoff contender.

The defense did its normal thing on Saturday, absolutely smothering a suspect Minnesota offense, and creating some timely turnovers. Even the offense started to pick up, with Clayton throwing for an efficient 14-19 and JJ picking up 100 yards in the game without Fitz running him 67 times. When it all came together against the Gophers, man did it come together. I don’t remember a statement win like that since I’ve been a Northwestern fan.

In the past ten years we’ve had success going to bowl games and being ranked on and off over that span. But, as Andy Day mentioned in a previous post, we tend to lose very soon after climbing into the top #25. It seems like the ‘Cats seem to thrive in the role of an underdog, but as soon as they’re thrust into the spotlight and the pressure ramps up…they wilt. In past years when we’ve crept into the top #25, I’ve never felt really solid about wherever we were ranked. I was always ecstatic waking up on Sunday to find our team listed on the bottom of the ESPN ticker as a top 25-er, but never fully believing that we deserved to be where we were placed.

This time, it’s different. This team not only has the resume of a deserving top-15 team, it has also passed the eye test. Our defense not only looks good – the stats also back it up. We have the top scoring defense in the country, giving up less than seven points per game. When you’re watching a game, you think that more often than not our defense is going to shut the opposing offense down. I’m surprised at this point when our opponents convert on third down.

Now we could easily lose to Michigan this week. We started out as a double-digit underdog (way too high of a line), and have our freshman QB going on the road into the Big House. Bigsby Thorson didn’t play well in his first road game at Duke, and it’s hard to really even consider that a road game since the stands were so empty. Playing at Michigan will be a whole different animal.

And yet, I’m not giving up hope for a win this week. Because I’ve seen this team play. And unlike past years, I’m not gripping the edge of my seat in fear every time they take the field. They look fast. They look hungry. They look confident. They look like they believe. It has been exactly 20 years since the 1995 Wildcat team turned around the program, expected victory and kept winning all the way to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. It’s pretty poetic that we again are a legit contender exactly 20 years later.

But, having come into the year with no expectations at all – you have to take a step back as a fan. No one thought we would be 5-0. At this point, it’s all gravy. I’m typically a very pessimistic sports fan (watch out Cubs), since if you always think your team is going to lose, then any win is just a bonus. But when it comes to the ‘Cats, I’m pretty positive and optimistic relative to other fans. Maybe it’s naivete from only following the team for eight years or so; who knows. I do know that going into the year I was very pessimistic for the first time out of those eight years. Even I couldn’t construct an argument for how this team could be a contender for a bowl game, let alone the Big Ten title.

But here we are. 5-0. 13 in the country. This is closed to uncharted territory for Northwestern. Fans are toeing the line right now between playing the “happy to be here” card and the “lose and the sky is falling” card. I’m somewhere in the middle. Yes, I’m giddy to be undefeated. But yes, I’ll also be very disappointed if they lose this weekend. I’m disappointed every time the ‘Cats lose.

There is a big difference this time. Never in my fandom have we had this much unexpected success in one year. In 2013 and 2014, for the first time I experienced what it was like to follow a losing team. And to put it in perspective, those two 5-7 seasons were exponentially better than the average for the majority of past Northwestern teams. That’s what’s fun about 2015 – this came out of nowhere. We can truly appreciate this success because of the context of two straight losing seasons. That’s why I may be disappointed if we lose Saturday, but will revert right back to giddy when I wake up on Sunday. Because it’s fun to be good again. It’s fun to see our name on ESPN.

For all those starting talk about playoffs, and Big Ten championships – I’d say slow down. Focus on the now. Take it one game at a time.

Chill out. Enjoy the ride. Stop and smell the roses.

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