It hasn’t been long since Northwestern went to its fifth straight bowl game and finished off a 10-win season with the program’s first bowl victory since the 1940s.
But after back-to-back five-win campaigns, those winning ways might seem like ancient history.
Not a lot had to go wrong for the Wildcats to drop from 10 wins in one season to 10 wins in two. Close games went every which way but their way, with unfathomable losses coming on Hail Marys, sliding last-second field goals and failed two-point conversions. A play here, a play there, and Northwestern might have made it seven straight bowl games.
So what needs to go right in 2015 to get back to those winning ways?
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Several players and head coach Pat Fitzgerald got that question last week during the team’s media day, and the answers were varied. But most of them dealt with something mental, something that wasn’t “complete more passes” or “make more tackles.” Northwestern seems to have the right attitude, but it’s in games where that attitude needs to pay off.
“I think the biggest thing is just consistency,” super back Dan Vitale said. “Despite what the record said, we were pretty much in every game last year, and unfortunately because we didn’t execute consistently, we lost games we shouldn’t have lost. We were in everything. So if we execute consistently, we can win those games.”
“I think we have to play within the system, I think that’s the biggest thing,” linebacker Anthony Walker said. “If we do what the coaches tell us to do and we execute the gameplan each week, we put ourselves in a great position this year. I think the last few years, we haven’t done that, we haven’t executed the gameplan. That’s the downfall of the last two years. I think this year, the trust comes in, trusting the system, trusting the coaches, trusting in one another and it’s going to be a great year.”
Running back Justin Jackson — who was a true freshman last season and wasn’t around for those bowl seasons of not long ago — might have had the most specific response. He talked about the beginnings and ends of games, points when games are won and lost.
Last season, Northwestern was hit in the mouth a few times and played catch-up the rest of the way. Look at a loss like the one at Iowa, where the Hawkeyes had a 24-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Other times, it was the end of games where the Cats let the game slip away. Northwestern led the game against Nebraska, 17-14, at the half, but the Cornhuskers scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to blow out the Cats, 38-17.
And those befuddling close losses were present, too. Northwestern lost to Minnesota by a touchdown, the game-winning score a 100-yard kickoff return. Against Michigan, Northwestern scored a game-tying touchdown with three seconds left in the game, but the Cats’ two-point conversion attempt was crushed, leading to a 10-9 loss.
“I think it’s starting off faster. I think a lot of games, we started off slow, came back, but it’s not enough. It’s so tough to come back when you’re down two scores, three scores. That’s what we saw last year,” Jackson said. “And it’s finishing. It’s really finishing strong. We were close in fourth quarters, but somehow we always let it slip away. And that’s the difference between a 5-7 record and a 10-3 record. So I think that’s a big part of our offseason, what we want to key on. And obviously every single day coach Fitz reminds us we’ve got to start fast, and when it comes to the fourth quarter we’ve got to finish strong.”
Those defeats might not have matched the wackiness of the ones in 2013 — who can forget the Hail Mary loss to Nebraska or Michigan kicking a game-tying field goal as time expired to force overtime? — but they symbolized the continuing epidemic of brief moments in games having huge impacts on the program’s perception, for better or worse.
Fitzgerald promised more close games in 2015, and anyone who’s watched any amount of recent Northwestern football knows he’s telling the truth. But to turn those moments in Northwestern’s favor this season, a season where the Big Ten West Division isn’t exactly on lockdown, certain things will have to happen. What are those things, coach?
“No. 1, playing our style of ball,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to start fast. We haven't done that, per say, over the last few years. We’ve won close games. We’re going to be in close games, we can already get over that, that’s going to happen. And we’ve gone through, we’ve done comprehensive studies. I’m not trying to discredit our opponent, but the thing that frustrates me as a coach, you look at when we lost and we beat ourselves. And they made some plays, too, I’m not minimizing our opponents, but we beat ourselves. Fumbling the ball, the quarterback-center exchange, not punting the ball properly, not proper cover lanes. You look at yourself first as a coach, and did we not do enough of these reps to put them in these situations? Then you beat yourself up about it and you create a solution and you go attack it.
“I think we’re much closer than maybe our record indicates. I can maybe count on two fingers the last two years where I’ve been bitterly disappointed and I feel like we didn’t show up. All the other games, we had every opportunity to go win those games. And we’ve got to find a way to win those games. We’ve done it, we know how to do it, and we’ve just got to teach our younger guys who maybe weren’t here. … But those guys who were on the field, who were out there in those close wins that we had kind of as a hallmark, those guys have to be the bellcows and get out in front when we’re in those situations. I like what they’ve done so far. I really feel good about where the attitude’s at and how they’ve worked.”