Losing hurts. There's no way around that. No loss hurts more than the first loss, when your pipe dreams of an undefeated season (however crazy) come crashing down, and those negative feelings really creep into your head. Will we win again? Are we really as bad as we looked? Whose fault is this? It happens every year, because going undefeated is nearly impossible.
So, we've gotten that first loss. But...I don't feel all doom and gloom like I'm used to feeling right now. Why? I started thinking about first losses in the past, and I do believe that there's a difference here. I'd like to look at the first loss of the season every year since Pat Fitzgerald became the head coach. Who did we lose to, and how? Take a look at how disappointing each loss was.
2006: vs. New Hampshire - 34-17 (Week 2)
When you lose to an FCS team, it's disappointing. Don't need to say any more than that.
2007: vs. Duke - 20-14 (Week 3)
This Duke team was well on its way to possibly breaking NU's infamous 34-game losing streak. The 'Cats stepped in to save themselves the record (not that they wanted it), and Coach Fitz went for it on a 4th down instead of taking an easy field goal. He admitted later that that was the wrong decision.
2008: vs. #23 Michigan State - 37-20 (Week 7)
Perhaps the only game on the surface that wasn't inherently disappointing, until you look at the details. Northwestern was coming in at 5-0 out of a bye week, but let Sparty go up 17-0 to start the game. The 'Cats never got closer than 10 points.
2009: @ Syracuse - 37-34 (Week 3)
For the second straight year, Northwestern started their first loss of the season by giving up 17 unanswered points. They battled back in this one, only to lose on a last-second field goal. In perspective, this Syracuse team went 4-8. The 'Cats went 8-4 en route to that crazy Outback Bowl.
2010: vs. Purdue - 20-17 (Week 6)
One of the first "Northwestern loses with expectations" games that I can remember, the 'Cats dropped a night game to Purdue, one of the few B1G teams that most fans have little fear for.
2011: @ Army - 21-14 (Week 3)
This one really hurt. Army was bad. LTP organized a big ol' Sailgate, and the 'Cats fell flat against the triple option.
2012: @ Penn State - 39-28 (Week 6)
The first blown 4th quarter lead that no one will let us forget, the 'Cats gave up 22 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes.
2013: vs. #4 Ohio State - 40-30 (Week 6)
No need to recap this one.
What sticks out to me here is that in each of these games, before last night, Northwestern either legitimately played poorly (Michigan State, Syracuse, Penn State), or lost to someone that they had no business losing to (New Hampshire, Duke, Purdue, Army...probably also Syracuse). Last night's Ohio State game featured neither of these things. Northwestern played well, very well. Look at those stats, and the only real difference between the two teams is in rushing yards. Northwestern actually has a slightly significantly higher passing total, but it comes nowhere close to making up for the discrepancy in rushing. All other stats are highly similar between the two teams. And don't you say that this was a game that Northwestern had no business losing. Ohio State was the pick all the way.
In the end, I saw this first loss of a season as the first one under Fitz that wasn't disappointing beyond the traditional "we lost" feeling. With all the attention focused on this game, the entire country saw that the 'Cats can hang with the big boys. Before this, plenty of people expected Northwestern to get pounded because, well, in history, that was what Northwestern did. Regardless of the loss, Northwestern performed significantly better than most outside of diehard 'Cats fans expected. And that makes this first loss different. A loss, yes, but one where the team played better than most thought. I'll take that.
As I finish writing this, the polls have come out for the next week. Northwestern is #19 in the AP and #18 in the Coaches. Yes, after this loss, they only dropped three (3) THREE spots in both polls. When was the last time you saw a Top 25 team lose and only drop three spots? There's all sorts of confidence here.