It may not have been a bowl game, it may not have been a Big Ten title and it may be only the sixth win of the year, but Northwestern’s shocker in Iowa City on Saturday was huge for the ‘Cats, for now and the future. Taking down the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes on the road is undoubtedly Coach Fitz’s best win as a coach, and one of the biggest wins for the purple in the decade. Let’s break it down the impact into two levels: this postseason and off-season.
Thanks to the upset at Kinnick Stadium, the Wildcats sit at 6-4, fifth place in the Big Ten and bowl eligible. There are up to seven slots for Big Ten teams in bowl games, including the Rose Bowl, which traditionally has a Big Ten vs. Pac-10 rivalry. Despite the fact that only one team in the Big Ten has been mathematically eliminated from bowl eligibility to date, Northwestern has the inside track to get one of the bids, and the next two games will make or break their postseason fate.
Wins over Illinois and Wisconsin would put the Wildcats in no lower than fourth place in the Big Ten, which according to ESPN would send them to the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. On the other hand, two losses could eliminate them from bowl contention completely, but that just won’t happen. By beating Iowa, Northwestern put itself on a national stage and showed they can compete with the best. True, Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi left the game early, but the Hawkeyes defense is still amongst the top in the country in yards allowed and points per game. The quarterback combination of sophomore Dan Persa and senior Mike Kafka led the ‘Cats over a tough opponent on the road, and that should not be ignored by the leisure suits who offer the bowl bids. Even a split of the last two games will guarantee a bowl game for Northwestern, and this upset of Iowa made it all possible.
The bigger impact to consider, however, is the off-season ripple effect. Not every program in the country beats a highly ranked, undefeated team on the road, and whether you think the victory was a masterpiece or a fluke, credit must be given to head coach Pat Fitzgerald. This win is Northwestern’s first against a top-10 opponent since 2004, when they beat #6 Ohio State in double overtime. He has turned this program into a solid player in the Big Ten and nationally, and, somewhat shockingly, the ‘Cats could have nine wins in each of the last two seasons if they win out this year. This program has not seen that kind of success in a while and could have its first back-to-back bowl appearances since 1996.
This success is clearly making Northwestern known amongst recruits, as interest in the ‘Cats is on the rise across the country. Their success from 2008 and through Saturday’s victory has made many talented athletes look strongly at Northwestern for 2011. ESPN says eight of the players considering playing in Evanston are ranked in the top 150 recruits in the class, which is significant for a team with a Northwestern’s reputation and one that is only four years removed from being below .500. Recruits from all over the country are interested in donning the purple and white, which all is thanks to Fitzgerald and his transformation of this program.
While beating Iowa is the best single result during the Fitzgerald era, the game is a just a glimpse of what the program can be. Performances like this bring attention from the media, recruits, bowls, and all the football talking heads. The key to the Wildcats season now, assuming they make a bowl, is to actually win a bowl game, something Northwestern hasn’t done since the 1949 Rose Bowl. So even though the ‘Cats may have struggled out of the gate this year, they have a chance to turn the season around, do something special for the school and make Northwestern a perennial contender.