Does anybody remember a week ago? We were 7-1, ranked in the top 20 of virtually every poll, had a remaining schedule that looked very promising and talks of Rose Bowl or at the very least a Jan. 1 destination were popping up all over the place.
As was displayed on this very website, all of this made me very nervous. This is not an "I told you so" post because although I thought we would come out sluggish I still was convinced we'd beat Northwestern. I really don't think that this team overlooked the Wildcats. The "one game at a time and one play at a time" mantra was believable but how could they not look ahead? And who could blame them? This team took a beating on the field and off last year, who could blame them for enjoying their season and looking forward to an Orlando, Pasadena or San Antonio vacation?
The problem is that the time to truly savor your season is when your season is over. In mid-January I encourage everyone on this team to look back, kick their feet up and smile because they accomplished a lot this year and it was a lot of fun. But there is still work to be done. Those happy, fun reflection times will be much more enjoyable if we can secure a trophy or two or three and still get to a bowl game in early 2009, not December of 2008.
While the Northwestern game stings, is it exactly what this team needed to refocus and truly prepare themselves for the task at hand? What lessons have we hopefully learned from this game?
A Big Ten quarterback can still hurt us. I think bigger than our gaudy record and the perceived easiness of our remaining schedule were the injuries to Northwestern's starting QB and RB. How easy it must have been to think that Kafka can't be as tough as Juice, Pryor, Lewis, etc. Well Kafka proved that if we don't take the likes of Threet, Stanzi and Sherer seriously they can and will hurt us.
Run the ball, stop the run. Kafka took it so us on the ground and our rushing offense was unable to give us anything of substance. Well coming up we don't have mobile quarterbacks to worry about as much but the likes of Shonn Green and PJ Hill are very dangerous. If we don't get better at stopping whoever has the ball on the ground and if we don't our running game straightened out we will continue to struggle the rest of the season.
Past performance is not indicative of future success (or lack there of). Northwestern's loss to Indiana did not mean they were going to roll over for us. In fact it forced them to work harder and come into the Minnesota game more prepared to win. The fact that Michigan has lost five straight, or Wisconsin is 1-5 in the Big Ten or Iowa is having a frustrating season doesn't guarantee anything for the Gophers. If we have to take one bad loss to remind us that we are not too far removed from being 1-11, then I'll take it.
There is more to winning a football game than turnovers. Hard to imagine that a game where we win the turnover battle and house one for six is a game that we lose, but that is what happened. If we can't stop the bleeding at the source and if we are unable to score points with our offense then winning games becomes very difficult. Big Play Traye lived up to his moniker on Saturday but the big play offense failed to come up with enough points to compliment the defense.
These are just a few of the lessons that were hopefully learned on Saturday. Nobody wants to lose football games, but I firmly believe this team needed a little slap in the face to remind them that wins do not come easy at this level and as quickly as we went 7-1 we can go 0-4 to finish the year. November is a huge month for this program and although it started off on the wrong foot, maybe it was just what we needed to get back our rhythm.