Following a 31-7 loss to then fourth-ranked Penn State on Oct. 7, Northwestern sat at 2-3 and had yet to notch a conference win. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said afterward that the team had backed "itself into a corner."
Following a five-game win streak, which included an FBS record three overtime victories, the Wildcats now sit 23rd in the College Football Playoff rankings, and are far from that proverbial corner.
While he likely did not expect five overtime periods over the course of three games, Fitzgerald is not surprised by his teams' resilience.
"Sometimes, you'll go through it, and embrace it, and you won't get the results," Fitzgerald said. "That happens too. ... I don't think (giving up) is in our guys' DNA. I just don't. At least in my 18 years that I've been here, I haven't seen a guy give up ever. I just don't think that's a Northwestern man."
The Wildcats (7-3, 5-2 Big Ten) seek to extend their win streak when they host Minnesota Saturday in their final home game of the season. The game is especially significant to the team's eight starting seniors, including running back Justin Jackson, who is now the school's all-time leader in career touchdowns (39).
"When you get older, you kind of enjoy it a lot more," Jackson said of his time at Northwestern. "I know all of us have really been enjoying this year and it just flew by. It's a tough thing, because obviously you don't want this brotherhood to come to an end, but it has to, so I think for all of us, it's just really enjoying the moments."
Minnesota (5-5, 2-5) has been hot and cold this season in trying to acclimate to first-year coach PJ Fleck's spread offense. The Golden Gophers average 21 pass attempts per game and nearly 45 rushing attempts, and have four ball carriers with at least 300 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Rodney Smith leads the team in attempts (195) and rushing yards (799), and Kobe McCrary has a team-best eight rushing touchdowns in addition to 407 yards on 72 carries.
Fitzgerald discussed the challenges in facing multiple ball carriers in a spread offense.
"Number one, you've got to fit gaps right," Fitzgerald said. "You've got to be sound with what you're doing and have coordination between the front and the back end. You're going to have a lot of one-on-ones, so you're going to have to tackle well, and then they do a really good job with their run-pass option if your back seven gets involved."