Back in the dark days, Northwestern could play to its potential and still not stand a chance.
The talent gap was too big to overcome, especially in Big Ten games.
The Wildcats since have closed the gap through improved recruiting and success on the field. They're now able to win when they don't play well. Case in point: last week's game at Minnesota, which brought some ugly numbers for Pat Fitzgerald's crew.
three turnovers, two in the red zone
10 penalties for 79 yards
defensive breakdowns that led to Minnesota touchdown passes of 38 and 25 yards, not to mention another 42-yard gain that set up another Gophers touchdown
And despite all that, Northwestern left TCF Bank Stadium with a 29-28 victory.
The Wildcats have committed five turnovers and 21 penalties (185 penalty yards) in their last two games and still come away with wins. The competition certainly has something to do with it, but those types of mistakes used to automatically equal losses for Northwestern.
It often takes a loss to fully get players' attention, but Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his players can be tough on themselves while still winning.
"We have not put together four quarters of Wildcat football yet," Fitzgerald said. "We've been fortunate to find a way to win, and we've got a lot of work to do. No one around here is feeling fat and happy. There's a real focus and an attention-to-detail attitude right now."
Close games are the norm for Northwestern, which has gone 27-7 in its last 34 games decided by seven points or fewer. But the Wildcats had chances to put away both Central Michigan and Minnesota the last two weeks, and couldn't do so.
The rash of penalties might be the most disturbing trend for Fitzgerald and his staff. Northwestern led the nation in fewest penalties per game in Fitzgerald's first season in 2006 (3.25 ppg). The Wildcats finished tied for ninth in 2007, tied for 20th in 2008 and 46th in 2009.
Through the first five games, Northwestern is tied for 92nd in penalties per game (7.6 ppg).
"I take full responsibility for that," Fitzgerald said. "The discipline of a football team falls on the head football coach. We've got to do a better job with some of our substitutions with some of our young receivers. ... We've got to have better communication and better focus. We had five presnap penalties [against Minnesota] that were all communication-based and three of those were on [quarterback] Danny [Persa]. We've got to be better than that.
"He knows that, he's his biggest critic, and I'm not worried about that getting fixed."
What does it say that the Wildcats keep winning despite mistakes?
"That I'm going gray," Fitzgerald quipped.