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 set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?