The pieces seemed to be in place.
Sure, there were questions, as there are with any team. But with Justin Jackson in his fourth season and Clayton Thorson in his third, this was perhaps Pat Fitzgerald’s program’s best shot yet at reaching the Big Ten title game.
But two games in, and Northwestern is looking far from a contender of any kind. The first two contests of the 2017 campaign have featured two ugly performances from the Wildcats. They averted disaster against Nevada, scoring twice in the final five and a half minutes to go from down three to up 11, but the Cats didn’t look good through the majority of a game they were projected to win by more than three touchdowns. Then came Week 2’s horrendous loss to Duke, a 41-17 blowout loss in which Northwestern looked bad in every facet.
Fitzgerald’s reaction to being asked to talk about the Duke game two days later summed it up pretty well.
“Do I have to?”
The numbers were tragic. Northwestern rushed for a jaw-droppingly low 22 yards, with Jackson getting just seven carries for 18 yards. Thorson threw a pair of interceptions. The Cats mustered 191 total yards and converted just once on third down. They had the ball for fewer than 19 minutes. And there’s the damage Daniel Jones and the Duke offense did to the defense, gaining a total of 538 yards, scoring 41 points. Jones had 413 total yards and four total touchdowns by himself.
Jackson was supposedly a little banged up. One of the interceptions was certainly not Thorson’s fault. The defensive secondary was thin. But this was a complete failure all around.
“Any time you get your fanny whipped, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror first,” Fitzgerald said Monday. “It starts and ends with me. … There were ample opportunities in that game for us to win the game on Saturday. It got away from us a little bit at the end as our defense ran out of gas, and credit Duke for that. But at the end of the day, there are areas there for us to make, we’ve got to go make them happen. All three phases.
“What’s the mood? The mood is let’s work hard to get better. Let’s improve. Let’s get back on the practice field and get things going.”
The natural reaction is to think back to last season, when the campaign’s start was also an issue. The Cats lost their first two games of the season to Western Michigan and Illinois State, embarrassing losses that derailed any shot the team might have had at competing for a division title before things even really got going.
That’s a somewhat flawed comparison, as that was different team with different personnel and different challenges at that time of year. But does it somehow make this year’s edition look a little worse? Things were supposed to be better this time around, and yet that same season-beginning disappointment exists.
“I get it, but there’s way too much stock put into what happened last year. This is a totally different team,” Fitzgerald said. “This is the 12th team I’ve had the privilege to be the head coach for, every team is different. … We’ve got to do a better job as coaches, we’ve got to get those guys to play more fundamentally sound and consistent, and they will. I wish it was Saturday, but it wasn’t.”
The best way to go about that Duke game could very well be to flush it from memory, a favorite coachism in the world of sports. So many things went wrong that just forgetting about it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all for the players.
But for those observing the team, it’s fair to wonder if it will be more of the same as the calendar advances.
Last season’s start was eventually overcome, and the Cats strung together some great performances in the middle of the season. But still the best that could be achieved was a .500 finish to the regular season and a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl. It was a great win in that game for Northwestern, but no one would consider it one of college football’s more illustrious postseason destinations.
Does this year’s slow start signal that a similar fate awaits the 2017 unit? That would be a pretty large disappointment in a season in which preseason expectations were relatively high.
Of course, these Cats still have just one non-conference loss in September. There’s no reason to declare that the season — and everything expected from it before it began — is over. Regardless of what happened before conference play rolled around, the Big Ten slate was always going to start with highly challenging games against Wisconsin and Penn State, games Northwestern would not have been favored in even had these first two weeks featured blowout wins. The final seven games of the schedule — against Maryland, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois — were where the Cats were supposed to amass the wins necessary to stage a run at a division championship. And of course that can still happen.
But the optics have not been good in the season’s first two weeks. Where’s that Cats team folks were expecting to see?
Well, we’re waiting.