Four games into the season, it’s difficult to describe a game as must-win, particularly when you’re talking about Northwestern, and especially when the opponent is #12 Michigan. The Wolverines are 5-0 on the season, and have impressed thus far. The ‘Cats on the other hand, are in a two-losses-in-a-row slippery slope. Lose to Michigan, and that slope will get a whole lot steeper.
Most Northwestern fans are probably caught in a “what might have been” daze at this point in the season. Dan Persa finally returned against Illinois, and was effective, though not overly spectacular. He did throw for a career-high 4 touchdowns, but he threw only 14 times, and had just 123 yards.
Had Persa never been injured, this would have qualified as an average game and beyond sub-par yardage numbers. But in reality, ‘Cats fans were just happy to see him on the field.
It would be admittedly difficult to drop the “what might have been” attitude, especially after a 2-2 start. But Northwestern is just 0-1 in the Big Ten. All is not yet lost.
Persa is back, and will likely continue to be more and more effective – and thus be used more and more often – each game. This is especially true with the season ending ACL injury of top running back Mike Trumpy.
So, the new season – the Persa season – should have began with Illinois, but the ‘Cats dropped that game in spectacularly poor fashion. Thus, this week begins the new season, and almost all hopes for the remainder of 2011 rely on this game.
With a loss to Michigan, Northwestern will fall to 2-3, the team’s first losing record since 2007. Though the team has been very positive throughout this season, that loss would be a knee to morale worse than the infamous knee to the groin against Illinois.
Following the Wolverines, NU faces Iowa on the road and then Penn State at home. The team gets a one-week reprieve against Indiana before heading back on the road to face Nebraska.
Being brutally honest, say Northwestern drops the game to Michigan. Whether a close loss or a blowout, the Wildcats confidence will likely drop. Losing a pivotal game in a nighttime atmosphere in the first game since students returned to campus would be a knockout punch.
Heading into Iowa with a losing record will be tough for the ‘Cats. James Vandenberg is on a roll for the Hawkeyes, completing 63 percent of his passes with ten touchdowns and only one interception. NU has clearly proven to be weak in the secondary, and Vandenberg could tear apart the Wildcats.
With the next three games – Penn State, at Indiana, and at Nebraska – it’s hard to imagine NU going 3-0. Given the benefit of the doubt, the Wildcat’s could go 2-1, leaving them with a 4-5 record on the year. At that point, regardless of the remainder of the season, the Wildcats are looking at a low-end bowl game, a serious drop from the preseason expectations.
Now for (the much more positive) scenario two:
NU upsets Michigan, using the crowd and nighttime atmosphere for momentum. With Persa back, the offense and defense both finally click and meet the high expectations. The team rolls into Iowa with confidence, and continues the recent streak of success against a Hawkeyes team weaker than previous years. The ‘Cats then take care of business against Penn State and Indiana.
Now, NU goes into Nebraska 6-2 and quite possibly ranked. Far-fetched perhaps, but not out of the realm of possibility. Whether or not NU pulls off an impossible (read: impossible) upset at Nebraska, the ‘Cats could be 6-3 with games remaining against Minnesota, Rice, and Michigan State. All three winnable, all three at home.
NU might be down, but the ‘Cats are not out. There is a scenario, albeit a difficult one, where the ‘Cats can take back this season and put up eight or nine wins. And with the talent this team has, all that’s left is for the light switch to turn on. And that proverbial light switch might just coincide with the Ryan Field lights going on to face the Wolverines.
twitter.com/jamie_arkinPowered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks