“If games were only 30 minutes, then Northwestern would be awesome,” I heard a student Wildcat supporter say as fans exited Ryan Field this past Saturday. After another blown lead to a high-profile opponent, this particular fan wasn’t the only one expressing that sentiment on Saturday. Indeed, if games were only 30 minutes, Northwestern’s current record would include three victories, two ties and no losses.
The Wildcats’ inability to hold leads – especially against big-time opponents – has caused heartbreak for ‘Cats fans and disappointment for the program as a whole over the past few years. If Northwestern could just play a bit better in the second half, conventional wisdom says, then the ‘Cats would have far better results.
But what if games were only 30 minutes instead of a full hour, like the fan outside Ryan Field suggested? Would Northwestern’s record over the past few years be drastically improved? Check the piece above for a look at Northwestern’s record in games they led at the half during the Pat Fitzgerald era, which began in 2006. For comparison purposes, the rest of the Big Ten teams are included over the same period.
The numbers are not overly staggering. Although Northwestern has blown leads in the second half, in the Pat Fitzgerald era it has won the vast majority of games in which the ‘Cats held a halftime lead. But Northwestern is actually last in the conference when it comes to blown halftime leads since 2006.
Even though they rank at the bottom of the Big Ten, it's worth noting that teams like Indiana haven't led in as many games at the half. Also, the statistic is somewhat misleading, as better teams such as Ohio State typically will have a bigger lead at the half than teams like Northwestern; thus, the Wildcats are more likely to give up their lead (such discrepancies point out the differences in each team's overall quality, not necessarily each team's play in the second half).
Why then have Northwestern fans been harping on the team's tendency to blow halftime leads more often in the last couple years? Perhaps it is because from 2006 to 2008, the 'Cats only lost a halftime lead and subsequently the game on three occasions. Northwestern has already blown two halftime leads this season alone.
It also may depend on the magnitude of these games. In 2010, for example, Northwestern was a respectable 4-2 when it led at the half. But the four victories were against Vanderbilt, Illinois State, Rice and Iowa, while the two losses were against Michigan State and Penn State. Although Iowa is a high-profile opponent, the Spartans and Nittany Lions were two of the Wildcats’ premier foes in 2010.
What goes wrong against these high-profile teams at halftime? There's no way of knowing for sure, but it could be that superior athleticism eventually wins out over smart tactics, especially when the opposition figures out Northwestern's gameplan. It could result from a reduced aggressiveness in the second half, a trap many teams fall into after gaining an early lead. Whatever it may be, closing out big-time games in recent years has been a challenge for the Wildcats. Something changes in that halftime lockerroom.
Another reason why fans seem to believe Northwestern blows every big game is that student supporters tend to overemphasize home failures. Fans naturally focus on the bad over the good as well. For example, when Northwestern upset Iowa in 2010 at Ryan Field, the ‘Cats held the lead at the half. But because Iowa took a 17-7 lead in the second half, spectators focused on the comeback Northwestern victory rather than the fact that the Wildcats blew a halftime lead.
Even though the last two losses against Illinois and Michigan may sting Wildcat supporters more because of Northwestern’s leads in each game, the reality is that the team has not blown an insane amount of leads the past few years. In 2008, the ‘Cats actually won every game in which they held a lead at the half. And yes, they lead the Big Ten in blown leads since 2006, but not by much.
And before you begin clamoring for 30-minute games, remember that Northwestern has had its fair share of come-from-behind victories as well. People don't refer to the team as the “Cardiac ‘Cats” for nothing.