Heading into the 2018 season, Wisconsin appeared to be a lock to win the Big Ten West. The Badgers have won the West in three of the first four seasons since the conference moved to this alignment, and made two of the three championship games in the Leaders and Legends format. Though Wisconsin hadn’t won a Big Ten title since the switch to East and West, they appeared to be a much better team than anyone else in the division.
If Wisconsin were to lose the division, Iowa seemed to be the only team with a shot at stopping them. The Hawkeyes made it to Indianapolis in 2015 following a 12-0 regular season before losing to Michigan State 16-13. They have traditionally been the best challenger to Wisconsin, but even they seemed far behind the Badgers. Purdue, led by second-year head coach Jeff Brohm, the Wildcats, and Nebraska, behind first-year coach Scott Frost, appeared to be teams who could possibly make a run at Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Big Ten West title, though it was a longshot.
Northwestern has been a good team in the Big Ten lately, but not elite and not good enough to compete week after week with the conference’s best. Additionally, quarterback Clayton Thorson was coming off of a torn ACL, and nobody knew how they would respond in 2018.
Northwestern’s season began with a trip to West Lafayette to play Purdue in a game that many thought would launch the winner into the hunt for the division title. Northwestern won despite not scoring in the second half and nearly giving up their 31-17 halftime lead. They were stopped by Purdue on their final drive, but a personal foul after a Boilermaker defender slammed running back Jeremy Larkin into the ground after losing a yard on 3rd and 11 gave Northwestern a first down. They were able to kneel and win the game 31-27. Purdue would follow that loss up with a loss to Eastern Michigan before losing to Missouri.
The Wildcats followed the win with two losses, both in non conference play. They hosted Duke, and after striking first, they gave up 21 straight points to go down 21-7 at halftime. That score would hold, and they fell to 1-1. Duke advanced to 2-0 with the win, and are currently 7-3, so the loss may not be as bad as many originally thought. The most concerning loss of the season came the following week, against Akron. The Zips came into Evanston 1-0 and trailed 21-3 at the half. They chipped away at the deficit in the third quarter and only trailed 28-26 after three quarters. With 8:30 left in the game, still down by two, Akron recovered a fumble in the end zone to take the lead. Their two point conversion attempt failed, and they led 32-28. A minute later, Thorson threw the dagger, a pick 6, his second of the game, to trail 39-28 to Akron. Northwestern scored with just over 2 minutes left and failed the two point conversion, and lost 39-34, giving Akron their first win over a Big Ten school since the 1890s.
The two non conference losses were concerning, but didn’t dent their conference record and their chances to get to Indianapolis. They did make people wonder if they could hang with their divisional counterparts, and their next opponent: Michigan.
They had a bye week to prepare for the Wolverines, who came into Evanston 3-1, but had become hot after a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame. The game plan worked perfectly for the first half, as they swarmed Michigan’s offense and took advantage of great field position to get past Michigan’s stifling defense. They led 17-0 with 13 minutes to go, and after Michigan added a touchdown four minutes later, they led 17-7 heading into halftime. This performance was despite the fact that their leading rusher Jeremy Larkin was forced to medically retire during the bye week.
Michigan powered their way back into the game in the second half. Northwestern did not score after the second quarter, but their defense was forcing Michigan to field goals instead of touchdowns. Michigan trailed 17-13 with ten minutes to go before they drove 67 yards to score and take a 20-17 lead. They forced a Northwestern punt, but then were forced to punt, giving the Wildcats a chance to win the game. Northwestern had to travel 85 yards in 34 seconds, and got to their 49 with a shot at a Hail Mary, but Michigan defensive end Josh Uche sacked Thorson as time expired, beating Northwestern 20-17. After this game, the Wildcats fell to 1-1 in conference play and 1-3 overall. Their chances at going to Indianapolis appeared slim to none, and bowl eligibility was a concern.
Northwestern traveled to Michigan State after the loss to Michigan, and neat the Spartans 29-19. Despite being held to eight rushing yards, they held Michigan State to 4-15 on third down at 0-2 on third down. Northwestern led 14-3 in the second quarter, before coughing that lead up and trailing 19-14 with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. They scored a touchdown and a two point conversion with 15 seconds left in the third, and after stopping the Spartans on fourth down deep in their own territory, the scored on a 3 play, 11 yard drive to take a 29-19 lead with three minutes to go, and would go on to win by that score. Their Big Ten title hopes lived to see another day, and with 0-5 Nebraska coming to town, they appeared to be headed to 3-1 in the conference.
Nebraska, hungry for Scott Frost’s first win, came into Northwestern and were not losing without putting up a fight. After leading 14-13 at halftime, Northwestern gave up two touchdowns and a two point conversion to go down 28-14 early in the fourth quarter. They answered a minute later with a 61 yard touchdown to trail 28-21, but then Nebraska added a field goal and led 31-21 with 5:41 left in the game. Northwestern got a field goal to return the deficit to seven with around 2:30 to go, and kicked an unsuccessful onside kick. They forced a punt, but it was downed at the Northwestern 1 yard line. The Wildcats had to travel 99 yards in 2 minutes with no timeouts remaining to go to overtime with winless Nebraska. Aided by a roughing the passer penalty and a couple big passes, the Wildcats scored with 12 seconds to go. In overtime, they picked off Nebraska on a 4th and 1 attempt to give them the ball, a score winning the game. After gaining six yards on three plays, they made a 37 yard field goal to win the game. A win is a win, and that win brought them to 3-1 in the Big Ten, their conference title chances still intact.
Next, they traveled to Rutgers to face the 1-6 Scarlet Knights. After an opening drive touchdown, Northwestern punted five times in the first half. On their last drive of the half, they trailed 10-7 and had the ball at their own 22. They completed a 9 yard pass, but were called for offensive pass interference, putting them at their own 11. Thorson was sacked in the endzone for a safety, and the Wildcats went into the half trailing 12-7. Thorson fumbled on the opening drive of the second half, and Rutgers answered with a field goal. The Wildcats responded with a field goal of their own, and neither team scored until 8 minutes left in the game, when Northwestern scored a touchdown and had a successful two point conversion attempt. The Wildcats managed to burn 6:30 of clock while only gaining 25 yards and punted the ball away as time expired, holding on to win 18-15. While it was a comeback win over the worst team in the Big Ten, they advanced to 4-1 in the Big Ten.
Their next game was at home against Wisconsin, who had a conference loss themselves, also at the hands of Michigan. The Badgers appeared to be Northwestern’s toughest opponent since that Michigan game, and the winner would take control of the West. After Wisconsin struck first, Northwestern took a lead and never looked back. They led 14-10 at the half and scored three straight touchdowns to lead 31-10. Wisconsin scored with eight minutes to go, but the scoring ended there, and Northwestern walked away with a 31-17 win. They were 5-3 overall and 5-1 in the conference after the win. Iowa lost to Penn State that same day, falling to 3-2 in the conference, giving Northwestern a 1.5 game lead in the division.
Their next game was not a conference game. It was a 31-21 home loss to Notre Dame, which dropped them to 5-4 overall but did not impact their conference record. The game after Notre Dame was the most important: the Iowa game. Iowa was 3-3 in the conference after two straight losses to Penn State and Purdue and looked to knock off the Wildcats at home. If Northwestern won, Wisconsin lost, and Purdue lost that day, the Wildcats would win the West. Wisconsin traveled to Penn State and lost 22-10, while Purdue got run out of Minnesota by a score of 41-10. If Northwestern upset Iowa on the road, they won the West and punched a ticket to Indianapolis for the first time in program history.
Battling frigid temperatures, the game was a classic Big Ten football game. The teams traded punts, with the exception of Iowa turning the ball over on downs once, an Iowa field goal with under a minute to go in the half, and Northwestern kneeling the ball to go into halftime trailing 3-0. Thorson threw an interception to start the half, but the defense held Iowa and forced a punt. On the ensuing drive, they drove 80 yards to score and forced Iowa to a field goal, which they missed. Leading 7-3, Thorson threw another interception, and Iowa threw a touchdown two plays later to take a 10-7 lead. After missing a field goal on a drive that took 7 minutes off of the clock, they forced a three and out and scored on the next drive to lead 14-10. The teams traded punts, and Iowa fumbled with six minutes to go attempting to regain the lead. Northwestern was forced to punt after a three and out, but Iowa fumbled again on their next drive with 1:34 to go. Northwestern was forced to 4th and 2 on the Iowa 34 with 35 seconds left, and converted it, sealing the win.
With the win over Iowa, they advanced to 6-1 and have earned a spot in Indianapolis. Wisconsin and Purdue are both 4-3 in the conference, and even if one of those teams finishes 6-3 and Northwestern loses their last two games, they own the tiebreaker from the head to head matchup.
Northwestern’s road to the Big Ten championship game has been surprising, unusual, and improbable. Not many people would expect a team who won by three against both the worst team in the conference and a team who has two wins against FBS teams and a team who has no non conference wins to be in a Power Five championship game. The Wildcat’s wild ride will end with games against Minnesota and Illinois, which they are expected to win.
If they win those games, they’ll be 8-4 overall and 8-1 in the Big Ten. They’ll wrap up their season playing either Michigan in a rematch or Ohio State. They’ll be an underdog against either team, but they almost beat Michigan once before and they’ve won as an underdog multiple times this year, so nothing is impossible with this Northwestern team.