Close your eyes, take a deep breath and relax.
For as hectic and nerve-wracking as this football season has been, Northwestern's 28-17 win over Iowa on Saturday is a well-needed break from the heart-wrenching wins and heartbreaking losses that have defined the Wildcats' season thus far.
Northwestern is 7-2 (3-2) and still has a chance to compete in the Big Ten Championship for a shot at their first conference title since 2000. At the very least, they have clinched a bowl berth and a better record than last year (6-7).
But despite Northwestern's excellent record, the Wildcat faithful have been reluctant to shake off their skepticism that this team is capable and worthy of the success they have experienced. This, matched with the regret of losing games to Penn State and Nebraska that Northwestern was in postion to win, has created a cloud around the Wildcats, which has been embodied in the sports media's coverage of the team. This baffles head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"It's amazing," Fitzgerald said after the game. "When we win, it's (that) we found a way to win. When we lose, it's like the sky is falling. We're a seven-win football team and I'd like everyone not to forget that."
Fitz is right and Northwestern's win on Saturday proves it. The 'Cats will never play a perfect game and the victories they earn will rarely be pretty. But the message from the team at Ryan Field and in the press conference was clear: it's time to take a deep breath.
Coach Fitz said himself that his team wouldn't win "a beauty pageant," but Wildcat fans can be confident in the team he and his staff have put together.
Kain Colter proved on Saturday that he can lead the Northwestern offense with both his arm and his feet. He went 6 for 9 with 80 yards through the air on Saturday and connected with wide receiver Christian Jones on a 47-yard touchdown pass to help quell some of the questions about his arm. Naturally, Colter shined most running the ball, rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
Venric Mark was electric against Iowa too, rushing for 162 yards on 16 carries. He and Colter combined for 328 rushing yards against an Iowa defense that had only surrendered an average of 189.2 rushing yards in their games prior to Saturday.
With injured cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans sitting on the sidelines, Northwestern's defense was left vunerable to exploitation. But with the leadership of linebacker David Nwabuisi and his 18 tackles, the Northwestern front seven shouldered the load left by the absence of VanHoose and Evans. While the replacements at cornerback, C.J. Bryant and Demetrius Dugar, had their momentary struggles, both played well enough to keep Iowa to only 214 passing yards. Dugar, who struggled with pass interference calls earlier in the season against Syracuse, cleanly broke up a critical pass in the second quarter to force an Iowa punt.
Outside of three penalties and two mistimed snaps, the Wildcats were aggressive but not reckless, and careful but not timid. Most importantly, they entered the second half with a 25-point lead and finished the game with an 11-point lead. For a team with such historically bad second halves as Northwestern, that's pretty impressive.
All in all, Northwestern looked like something Wildcat fans have been yearning to see for far too long: a consistent, if not dominant, football team.
With three critical regular season games left, Fitz and his Wildcats still have significant work to do. Whether or not they successfully do it is another thing. But if Northwestern's win over Iowa says anything, it's that as tenuous as Northwestern's season may seem, the Wildcats are still 7-2, still have a shot at a big bowl game and, most importantly, still have the ability to win on a consistent basis — even when it seems like they won't.
Remember that when it seems like all hope is lost, and it might just be easier to close your eyes, take a deep breath and relax.