Pat Fitzgerald bid the 2013 season "good riddance" a week early last Saturday. But a week later, as he actually bids the year adieu, there was finally something to cheer about in Evanston, albeit a golf clap more than an ovation.
Saturday's 37-34 win over Illinois was a nice one to send the seniors out on top, but that's about all you can say about a win against hapless — and I do mean hapless — Illinois.
Once the dust settles, there will be no bowl game, there will only be words of "good riddance" for a team that may have barely lost out to Florida for the title of "most disappointing" this season. It's been a long, rough fall since GameDay, and Northwestern is ready to move on to next year despite the win tonight.
There will be an entire offseason to second guess this year's decisions, and to be quite honest, there has already been an offseason's worth of criticism, most of it deserved. From the puzzling play calls to the conservative coaching to the misuse of talent, this hasn't been the best year fort Pat Fitzgerald or Mick McCall. You can blame injuries or the expectations or whatever you want, but the bottom line is they didn't get the job done and neither did the players.
But while Saturday's victory over Illinois doesn't provide any solace this year, there were actually some things to like about next year. Next year should be better, after all, and Saturday's game provided proof of that:
- There will be a quarterback competition next spring and fall, no doubt, but Trevor Siemian proved today that it will be his job to lose. He's struggled at times this season, and he has a ways to go in his development (he has to do a better job of looking off receivers, for one). But he's a gunslinger and can move the offense quickly. The Illinois defense is bad, but the pass defense is at least mediocre, and Siemian picked them apart. Plus there's injury news we weren't told about before:
Again, Matt Alviti will get a chance, but Siemian deserves one, too. If he can consistently do what he did today, NU will be in position to win a lot of games.
- The defense struggled in the past couple games, but overall, it's been much-improved this year. And next year, the unit should be more talented than it's been in a long time. Even without Tyler Scott, the defensive ends should be outstanding. Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson have both been solid as starters and Ifeadi Odenigbo has star potential. The linebackers lose Damien Proby, but keep Collin Ellis, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Drew Smith. The secondary might be at its best under Fitzgerald, with everyone returning. This group has the potential to get even better. That's a good sign heading into 2014.
- The wide receivers looked really good. Can Christian Jones consistently play like he did today? Will Miles Shuler make an impact as a deep threat? The potential is there. Next year could be special for this group, especially with everyone but Rashad Lawrence returning.
We'll have a lot of time to discuss next year, so no need to discuss it further today. But if today proved anything, it's that next year should provide some relief, even though 5-7 might suck.
At tonight's postgame press conference, Fitzgerald defiantly proclaimed NU will be back. 2013 proved there are no guarantees, but today's performance showed that he just might be right.
As it stands, Chicago's Big Ten Team can take a page from the book of Chicago's baseball team — we'll have to "wait til next year" to find out.