The Northwestern Wildcats weren’t necessarily supposed to be better than they were in 2015.
They definitely weren’t supposed to start 0-2.
Does this mean Pat Fitzgerald is a bad coach? No. Winning 10 games at Northwestern, in any time or season, is a very difficult thing to do. Yet, the fumbling, bumbling, stumbling nature of this September underscores the claim — one which gains more credence by the day — that Fitzgerald is not a superstar in the coaching profession.
By all means, one should acknowledge up front that Northwestern is one of many FBS programs where it’s hard to consistently win at a high level. Northwestern is a place where an occasional breakthrough season might exist, but it’s extremely difficult to stack together two first-rate seasons.
This isn’t just a commentary on recent history, either.
The 1948 team — which won the 1949 Rose Bowl — won four games in the 1949 season.
Randy Walker made the Alamo Bowl and won eight games in 2000. He won four games in the 2001 season.
Fitzgerald himself went 10-3 in 2012, winning the Gator Bowl and giving NU its first bowl win since that long-ago Rose Bowl in 1949. (It was the program’s second bowl win — no other postseason conquests have been recorded by the school.) In 2013: 5-7 and no bowl appearance.
This year is 2013 all over again.
Saturday’s loss at home to Illinois State wasn’t just a gut-punch on its own terms. It wasn’t a devastating loss solely because the Redbirds doinked a field goal through the uprights on the final play, or because a solid defensive performance was wasted. The biggest effect of the loss is that it puts Northwestern into a big bowl bind.
The Wildcats will have to visit Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State this season while hosting Wisconsin and Nebraska. Barring a shortage of 6-6 bowl teams (as was the case last year), Northwestern MUST win one of those five games to attain bowl eligibility this season. The Wildcats must, of course, win out in all their other Big Ten games plus a non-conference clash against Duke.
The inability to win big in back-to-back years at Northwestern remains profound — only Gary Barnett, in 1995 (Rose Bowl season) and 1996 (Citrus Bowl season), defied history. Fitzgerald is running into his own limitations, but he’s also encountering his program’s ceiling as well — it’s a low one.
The main point to emphasize for the 2016 Wildcats through two games is that Clayton Thorson — who beat Stanford last season (yes, with help from his defense, but he didn’t make big mistakes on that day…) — has regressed.
Freshmen quarterbacks thrown into the fire in year one might not be starters (solely) as a result of their own acumen. The competitors for the starting job might not have been as good. However, Thorson was given the keys to the car in his sophomore season. When an experience-laden sophomore returns after a learn-on-the-job freshman campaign, a coaching staff has every right to expect meaningful improvement from that player, even if the degree of progress is relatively incremental.
One cannot point to any incremental progress for Thorson through two games. Northwestern’s offense took a big step back.
It is fascinating for neutral parties, but endlessly frustrating for fans of specific teams:
Why must one side of the ball be so good while the other is so bad?
What if — Northwestern fans must wonder — Fitzgerald could hire Kliff Kingsbury as his offensive coordinator?
What if — Texas Tech fans night ask — Kingsbury could hire Fitzgerald as his defensive coordinator?
Northwestern is what I call a “half-a-loaf” program, which has figured out one half of the sport but is woefully deficient in the other. The Wildcats failed to make a bowl game in both 2013 and 2014. They were 83rd in the FBS in scoring in 2013, 100th in 2014.
The Wildcats persist in not giving themselves or their fans a better offense. It’s why the 2016 season already stands on the precipice of failure, and why Pat Fitzgerald has miles to go before he can be viewed as a next-level coach.