EVANSTON, Ill. – Through the first five weeks of the season, finding a defense that rivaled Northwestern was sparse. Sitting at 5-0 with impressive wins over Stanford, Duke and Minnesota, the Wildcats emerged as a real threat in the Big Ten West.
Then, with one strong breeze, October hit and it did what that month does best: Smash Northwestern’s hopes of competing for a conference championship.
For the past three seasons it’s been the same story. The month of October has brought devastating changes to Evanston, ending all hopes of a banner year.
It’s been no different this fall.
After an impressive 27-0 thrashing of Minnesota to open Big Ten play and after allowing just seven points per game through the first five weeks, the Wildcat defense was torched in consecutive weekends.
Northwestern surrendered a combined 78 points in losses to Michigan and Iowa, more than double the total it had permitted through the first five games. The defense that had allowed only a single rushing touchdown during its undefeated start to the season gave up eight in its two losses.
Prior to losses to the Wolverines and Hawkeyes, the Wildcats had shed the “dark horse” title and were quickly becoming favorites to compete with the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State for a Big Ten crown.
It was a completely unpredictable collapse.
Except this most recent downfall wasn’t surprising; not if you’re familiar with the trends of Northwestern football over the past three seasons, at least.
Since 2013, the Wildcats are a lowly 2-8 in October. The month has truly provided more tricks than treats for head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company. Despite the offensive woes this program has endured over the past few seasons, the struggle of the defense has been the cause of Northwestern’s eventual fall.
Over the past three seasons, the Wildcats have allowed an average of 16.4 points per game in the months of August and September. That number spikes eight points higher, a 24.2 average, when October arrives.
This drift started in 2011 when Northwestern surrendered 34 or more points in every game during a 1-4 stretch in October. Every year since, a tumble has become tradition in the heart of the season.
Certainly, there are some important factors involved.
The beginning of the Big Ten slate and the improved level of competition obviously presents problems for Northwestern’s defense. It’s not surprising the Wildcats slip defensively when they enter conference play. A touchdown per game difference, however, is a significant decline.
It proves the Wildcats don’t have the depth to keep up with the major powers of the Big Ten. When conference play begins, the effort exerted to keep nonconference foes out of the end zone has caught up with Chicago’s team. The struggles on offense don’t help matters, either.
In each of the past three seasons, Northwestern has ranked in the last two spots in the conference in scoring and has been just as ineffective in total yardage during that same stretch. Over the past three years, the Wildcats have never averaged more than 18 points per game during October.
Each year, the defense that opens the year so dominant eventually fades while the offense fails to gather any confidence. Unless that is somehow fixed, Fitzgerald is going to have a rough time leading his team back atop the Big Ten Conference.
Success experienced as it was in 2012 will be hard to come by if the Wildcats can’t overcome their October issues.
Having the bye week on Halloween, Northwestern has just one opportunity to post its first non-losing October since 2012—when it finished the year 10-3. A win over Nebraska would secure bowl eligibility for the Wildcats, even the conference mark at 2-2 and give Fitzgerald’s team confidence heading into a much needed open Saturday.
But history in this month hasn’t been too promising for Evanston.
Northwestern’s candy basket is in dire need of a few more treats to get this season back on the right path.