It was a brutal start to the season for the Wildcats, who were stunned in embarrassing fashion with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State in the campaign’s first two contests, hardly the ideal beginning for a team coming off a 10-win 2015.
But in its last two games, Northwestern has looked like a brand-new squad. Wins over Iowa and Michigan State both came on the road and both featured electric performances and a combined 92 points from an offense long believed incapable of such things.
The explanation for the turnaround might not be terribly complicated, according to head coach Pat Fitzgerald, but one thing is for sure: The team that started the season in such awful fashion is no more.
“That team stunk,” Fitzgerald explained during his weekly press conference Monday. “So I just hope we don’t have that team show back up. I think that team is dead. I think, I don’t know for sure yet. I’ll know a little bit more tomorrow. That was a really bad football team. It’s my fault. I think we’re working to get better, I think we’re working to get things fixed.”
Things have looked so much better in the last two games, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where the Cats have the Big Ten’s leading rusher in Justin Jackson (116.3 yards per game) and leading receiver in Austin Carr (99.2 yards per game). This past weekend’s game against Michigan State was particularly explosive, with Northwestern racking up 490 total yards, Jackson rushing for a career-high 188 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Carr catching a career-high 11 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
Fitzgerald said quarterback Clayton Thorson had the best game of his career with an 18-for-30, 164-yard, three-touchdown game at Iowa. Well then how would he rate Thorson’s efforts against Michigan State, when the redshirt sophomore completed 27 of his 35 passing attempts for 281 yards and a trio of touchdowns?
The huge amounts of production and the back-to-back victories in hostile Big Ten environments couldn’t have been predicted as little as three weeks ago, when Northwestern was coming off a nasty home loss to Nebraska, the Cornhuskers offense shredding the Cats defense and Fitzgerald’s team shooting itself in the foot left and right.
But a change has come.
“I think it’s the way that we’ve been preparing,” Fitzgerald said Monday. “You start to get the DNA of your squad, and we were so inconsistent. We needed to have a much greater attention to detail, and that was my challenge to the coaches. Obviously for us being as inconsistent as we were early, it comes to coaching, it comes to attention to detail, it comes to discipline, it comes to focus, it comes to fundamentals, it comes to competitive nature, it comes to toughness, it comes to the standard that we have. And we weren’t playing to our standard, and that’s on us as coaches.
“I think that’s what we’re doing, we’re just grinding. We’ve got our focus in the right spot. I think we’re embracing that improvement mentality. I think every team is that way right now, you’re six or seven games in. You know who you are, whether you look in the mirror and go, ‘Wow, you’re pretty hot,’ or you look in the mirror and go, ‘You’re pretty ugly.’ It doesn’t matter. You are who you are, and you’ve got to find a way to win.
“Those who embrace that grind and that improvement mentality typically do the right things during the week to put themselves in a position to be prepared. If you’re prepared, you’ve got a chance to win. If you don’t, you beat yourself during the week, you go into the game and you lose because you’re not prepared and you don’t have an opportunity. To me it’s not rocket science, it’s really a simple formula. The challenge is doing it.”
The Cats have done it, apparently, because things are much different.
Of course, Fitzgerald knows there’s still work to be done. Northwestern’s defense — including a banged-up secondary that’s been much maligned all season — allowed a combined 71 points in those two wins.
But the No. 1 thing on Fitzgerald’s mind Monday was his team’s slow start against Michigan State. Northwestern was in a 14-0 hole after a short 39-yard Spartans touchdown drive and a Clayton Thorson interception was returned for an easy touchdown. Of course the Cats woke up, but Fitzgerald was not pleased at how long it took them to do so.
“I really think we were kind of out watching the Homecoming parade till Joe (Gaziano)’s sack (of Brian Lewerke),” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what was frustrating to me, and at halftime I was very, very demonstrative. I was not very pleased at all with how played in the first half.
“You achieve what you emphasize, and we talk all the time here about starting fast. We start our practices fast, everything we do is that way, that nature. And not to do that, to me, is a choice, and I didn’t like the choices we were making early.”
The Cats bounced out of that hole against Michigan State, but it sure is a bad habit with a tough Indiana team up next and top-10 squads Ohio State and Wisconsin after that. With those three teams still on the schedule, reaching the requisite six wins for a bowl berth will be a challenge.
But if the last two games are any indication, Northwestern should be feeling much better about that challenge than it did after the season’s first four games.