Once on the brink of the big time, Northwestern fighting to get back

Since losing to Ohio State on Oct. 5, 2013, Northwestern has won only six times in a span of 19 games. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- The signs all along pointed to a potential tipping point for Northwestern.

The buzz had reached a fever pitch on campus with the Wildcats unbeaten and ranked No. 16 in the nation heading into October of 2013. College GameDay was coming to campus to set the scene ahead of a showdown against No. 4 Ohio State that marked one of the biggest home games in recent history for the program. And with a win, Pat Fitzgerald's club would not only claim a signature victory, at a minimum it could have stamped itself as a legitimate threat to capture a Big Ten crown -- and it was well on its way to doing so in the fourth quarter on a rainy night at Ryan Field.

In heartbreaking fashion for the Wildcats, it all slipped away from them down the stretch. Even worse for Northwestern, that loss did go down as a turning point for the program, just not the kind it envisioned and one that in some ways it is still trying to recover from nearly two years later.

"Ohio State was a huge game and after we lost, it basically just took the wind out of our sails," senior Nick VanHoose said. "It hurt. You can tell from watching our next game against Wisconsin [in a 35-6 loss], I mean it looked like we didn't even show up.

"We tried to be us, but I felt like a little bit of a piece of us, who we are, was kind of lost after that game. Players start having doubts about the season, having doubts about play calling and coaches, and once you get any of that into your locker room, it becomes a cancer and it spreads from player to player. It was bad."

The crisis of confidence wasn't the only issue the Wildcats had to deal with as the season progressed, but the deflation of the loss certainly didn't help matters any.

Fitzgerald was quick to point to a handful of off-the-field issues that had an impact without going into much detail about them, but on numerous occasions he has pointed to some bad "mental habits" he needs to help the team break. Either way, Northwestern wound up losing six more games in a row after Ohio State finished off its late rally, plummeting out of the postseason picture along the way. There were more setbacks again last season, starting with the distraction of the unionization effort and including personnel losses like the suspension and eventual transfer of star tailback Venric Mark and the injury to top receiver Christian Jones. The hangover continued with another 5-7 campaign that again left Northwestern at home during bowl season.

Overall, the Wildcats have played 19 games since that primetime, marquee opportunity against the Buckeyes -- and they've won just six of them.

"It was one game, but we let that game beat us a couple times, if that makes sense," Fitzgerald said. " ... It was our opportunity, I think, to take the next step as a program and we let it slip through our hands.

"I'm not trying to discredit Ohio State. I mean, they beat us, but we beat ourselves in that game, too. And we've been that way a little bit now for 15 or 16 games, and I think our older guys realize what it took to be consistent the previous years and they've worked diligently to get us back there."

That process started with Fitzgerald doubling down on toughness and discipline during spring practice, but it's included far more than just an emphasis on what happens on the field. Northwestern has leaned heavily on its veterans to develop better chemistry within the locker room, encouraging spending more time with teammates to help forge a closer bond with them heading into training camp -- steps that could help fight off that negative cancer that popped up in the fallout of a disappointing defeat.

The next phase, though, figures to be simply stepping on the turf and winning a few games early in the season to restore some of the confidence that was about to boil over before Ohio State effectively shut off the stove.

"We were kind of flying high, we had a great season with the Gator Bowl the year before and then we had four wins before that game, then we lost in heartbreaking fashion to them," senior superback Dan Vitale said. "It brought us back down to earth and we had to reevaluate a lot of things about our team, and we lost our swagger. It kind of got taken away from us.

"There's that huge consistency question mark with us. We've won games against Wisconsin, we beat Penn State, we beat Notre Dame, and we lost games we shouldn't have lost and it has happened a couple times. If we can play on a consistent level, with consistent confidence and swagger, I think we're this close to being right where we were a couple years ago."

The Wildcats have been to the brink before and know what it takes to get there. Now they're building for another turning point, one where next time they're trying to avoid having any reason to wonder down the road what might have happened if it had gone the other way.