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.”