Big Ten

What's wrong with Northwestern? Long list of answers to that question

What's wrong with Northwestern? Long list of answers to that question

What’s wrong with Northwestern?

An 0-2 start to the season has plenty of people asking that question, particularly because the losses have come against Western Michigan and Illinois State.

The thing is, that question has a long list of answers, and those problems must be recognized before they're addressed, meaning there are way more unknowns than certainties as the Wildcats head into their biggest non-conference game of the season against Duke.

What will that game be like? Well, considering how haphazard the Cats’ play has been on both sides of the ball through two defeats, there’s really no way of knowing. So don’t even bother guessing.

“Where we’re at right now, I think predicting and projecting is a waste of my time,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday during his weekly press conference, “because obviously I couldn’t have predicted that our O-line would have played the way that they did on Saturday. If I would’ve, I would’ve played some of the (No.) 2s the whole day.

“Tomorrow’s a really important practice for this year’s team. The attitude which they demonstrate and the way that we go out and execute fundamentally — that was the biggest thing. You look at some things that we drill and we work, and then you get out in the moment and it doesn’t happen, you just sit there and you scratch your head as a coach and you look at the guys and ask them why and keep grinding at it and influx competition. That’s where we’re at.”

It’s not a great place to be, not sure of what your players are going to give on a given Saturday.

Fitzgerald saw struggles on the defensive side during the Week 1 loss to Western Michigan, and despite a big day from Justin Jackson running the ball, a lack of big plays on offense equaled a one-point loss. In Week 2, the offense shouldered the blame, with Fitzgerald particularly lamenting the performance of an offensive line that played so poorly the team mustered just 86 rushing yards.

“You should win all those games when you hold a team under two touchdowns,” he said of the 9-7 defeat at the hands of an FCS opponent, the first one of those since Northwestern fell to New Hampshire in 2006.

Mustering just seven points against an FCS defense was alarming, and the Cats didn’t even score until there were about six minutes gone in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Clayton Thorson completed just 41.5 percent of his passes, the rushing attack managed a mere 86 yards as Jackson’s day ended early due to injury, and the team committed 70 yards’ worth of penalties.

“We’re across the 50(-yard line) a bunch, and we just beat ourselves rep after rep after rep after rep,” Fitzgerald said. “And you’re setting yourself back. You get across the 50, and all of a sudden it’s third and 12, it’s third and eight, it’s third and nine. Right now, we’re just not making enough of those plays to be able to overcome that.

“From the standpoint of Justin’s ability to run the ball and our backs, I thought we didn’t have a whole lot to work with on Saturday. And then we were pretty darn one-dimensional having to throw the ball. And throwing the ball less than 50 percent, you’re not winning a whole lot of football games when that happens. It’s part on Clayton, it’s part on getting hit, getting drops.

“There’s plenty of thumbs to be pointed. It’s not one thing, I wish it was. If it was, we’d just go practice that today and be good to go. We’ve just got to get much more consistent.”

Offense was an issue last season, too, when the Cats won 10 games. The problem now is that the defense isn’t exactly on point, either. Though the Northwestern defense improved from a week prior, Illinois State won the time-of-possession battle 34:18 to 25:42 and out-gained the Cats 372-277, rendering Northwestern’s plus-two turnover ratio moot.

Last season, that game against Duke was a huge day for the defense. After shutting down Stanford two games earlier, the Northwestern defense limited Duke to just 10 points on 327 yards, forcing a trio of turnovers.

Capturing that again could go a long way toward righting a ship that’s way off course to start 2016.

“We played like our hair was on fire,” Northwestern safety Godwin Igwebuike said of last year’s Duke game. “It was really cool to see, really cool to watch. That was one of the games that personified our defense. A lot of those same guys are back, and I feel we can continue to do the same things.

“This is a big game for us. Just playing relentless, we were playing all out. I know we’re capable of that, and we’ve shown that more and more as we’ve progressed. I think it’s a huge game for us to prove ourselves.”

And that’s all without mentioning a missed field goal against Illinois State, a play that loomed large in a game decided by two points.

So, like Fitzgerald mentioned, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But in football, with a new challenge every weekend, there’s not too much time to get things figured out. There’ll be plenty of season left after the non-conference portion of the schedule concludes, but Northwestern is staring at road trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State in three of its first five conference games. Those opponents in those venues don’t leave much in the way of margin for error.

So the time to get things fixed is right now.

“It starts with shutting out the noise coming from the outside. There’s a lot of negative things that are always being said when you lose, a lot of negative things being said when one side of the ball doesn’t do well, a player doesn’t do well,” Thorson said. “So it starts with trusting in each other and believing in each other, and we do.

“There’s a sense of urgency, of course. There’s a sense of urgency every week, though. So this is nothing new. This has happened to our program in the past, and we’ve just got to respond from it.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.