Great teams are defined by great moments, great players and great wins.
They are defined by smart coaching, big plays by big-time playmakers and maybe even a break here or there.
They are defined by blowout wins when everything goes their way, and they are defined, too, by those overtime nailbiters that push them to the very limit.
They are defined by all of that, and more, but perhaps more than anything, great teams are defined by how they respond to adversity—how they react when everything seems lost, when their backs are against the wall, or when their dream season seems to have come to an end.
For Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats, their defining moment as arrived. And whether or not this team achieves the greatness they desire rests entirely on what kind of attitude—and what level of play—they bring with them this weekend, when they welcome to undefeated and 17th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes to Evanston. It is a matchup that figures to not only play a massive role in determining how the Big Ten West race shakes out, but also one that will tell us what each of these teams is really made of.
In truth, even though we’re now halfway through the 2015 college football season, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of either the Hawkeyes or the Wildcats. We know, of course, that both are enjoying more success than pretty much anyone could have expected; after all, coming into the season, there was talk (or at least whispers) that time was running out on both Fitzgerald at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz at Iowa.
But here we are in mid-October, and the Hawkeyes are sitting at a perfect 6-0, while the Wildcats are 5-1. Both have scored impressive wins already this season (the Wildcats have knocked off Stanford and Duke, while the Hawkeyes have toppled Wisconsin and Nebraska), and both are playing with more confidence than they have in years.
And yet, even Fitzgerald and Ferentz would likely admit that their teams simply don’t have the same kind of talent that some of those power teams out in the Big Ten East do. These teams are assuredly not Ohio State. They aren’t Michigan State. They may not even have the skill-position talent of a still-sanctions-hobbled Penn State.
What they have had so far is composure. Each of these teams have been locked in tight battles this season, and each of them have emerged victorious. That doesn’t happen by accident; good teams win close games. And yes, composure matters.
Heading into this week, then, the question is whether Northwestern is going to keep their composure—or let last week’s blowout loss to Michigan derail their season entirely.
That 38-0 defeat must have come to a shock for Fitzgerald and his players, especially in context of all the success that they had enjoyed previously. They allowed Michigan to return the opening kick for a touchdown and never really had a chance from there. They were dominated from start to finish, and while it’s probably true that Michigan is a really, really good football team, it’s also true that the Wildcats played their worst football of the year.
Now they welcome an undefeated Iowa to Ryan Field, and they have an opportunity get their once-perfect season right back on track.
We know these Wildcats are good.
But are they great? Or at the very least, do they have the potential to be great?
We’re about to find out.