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Column: Northwestern Couldn't Prove It's a Good Team, At Least Not Yet

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

As Northwestern began its second-to-last full drive, from its own 25-yard line, up 28-23 with 5:55 remaining in the game, fellow writer Chris Johnson turned to me and said, “Alright Northwestern, prove you’re a good team.”

But the Wildcats couldn’t prove it, going three-and-out on that drive, before giving up a go-ahead touchdown and missing a potential game-winning field goal. After the 29-28 loss, the mantra remained the same — this team is still unproven. However, NU may have proven something to us Saturday night — it’s just not that good of a team.

At 6-2, this certainly looks like a good team on the surface — after all, the Legends Division “favorite” is 5-2 — but it’s time to stop looking at record as an indicator of how good this team might be and it’s time to stop clinging to lazy, old mantras about NU’s football history. This is certainly a program on the upswing — one that is better than when Pat Fitzgerald took over as coach in 2006 — but to acknowledge that you also have acknowledge reality, and reality is that the better team won a game in which NU had far more chances than it deserved.

The stereotypical Northwestern “script” to a game has been blowing leads in the fourth quarter and making close games out of games it should have blown open. The “Cardiac Cats,” if you will. But that’s not what happened in this game. NU was in this game much longer than it deserved to be, thanks to three early fumbles from Nebraska. Want proof? NU was out-gained 543-to-301. Fitzgerald likes to say that “stats are for losers,” but in this case, there’s no denying that statistically, NU had no business being in the game at the end.

Most will jump to the end of the game as the reason NU lost — the missed field goal, the failure to hold the Nebraska offense and the inability to convert on third down on the final drive. But let’s not forget that the game is made up of four quarters, and no matter what heroics or heartbreak take place in the final five minutes, the previous 55 minutes set up the ending.

Once again, the NU coaches made the mind-boggling decision to make Trevor Siemian their featured quarterback, leaving Kain Colter — you know, that guy named a mid-season All-American — away from the ball. Once again, Siemian struggled mightily as the Cats couldn’t find any sort of rhythm.

You have to wonder what the coaches see in Siemian. The common refrain is that he’s a better passer than Colter, but that’s just not true. Colter can extend plays; Siemian can’t. And what’s worse is that the defense knows exactly what is coming — passes from Siemian and runs from Colter.

NU’s coaches are holding back their best offensive playmaker. But it’s not just tonight; it’s been that way for the past few weeks. Gameplan mistakes happen, but when that mistake continues to happen with no positive results, it becomes a problem. What’s the reason for NU sticking with Siemian? Frankly, I don’t know. But one thing we do know is that this team has struggled with questionable coaching decisions in recent weeks.

Good teams have good coaching, so the fact that NU hasn’t had a marquee win to date shouldn’t be all that surprising.

There are many problems with this team — youth, an inconsistent pass defense and the inability to establish an offensive rhythm. To diagnose all of those problems would take more writing than anyone would want to read. We’re still figuring out some of those issues.

But what we do know is that Northwestern’s 6-2 record is a product of its schedule more than anything, not the product of a special team. You can’t say much else about a team that has beaten Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota, Indiana and Minnesota and lost to its two tough tests, Penn State and Nebraska.

Take this team for what it is, not what its record showed. This isn’t a team that blew a game it should have won; rather, it lost to a better team tonight. Even if it finishes 7-5, this isn’t a team that blew it down the stretch; it’s a team that happened to have a very back-loaded schedule.

Tonight was the night Northwestern had a chance to prove it’s a good team. It’s not, and we learned that after 60 minutes of missed coverage and questionable quarterback switching. This could be a good team— it certainly has the talent — but it’s not there yet.

There’s a difference between a talented team and a good team, and we saw that difference firsthand tonight.