My friends never leave early. They've seen some pretty rough Northwestern football games, but they're always there until the end. The one time they did leave early before Saturday night? The rainy blowout loss to Michigan State in 2013 when it "felt like" 10 degrees outside.
When it comes to Northwestern students, my friends are about as diehard as they come. Saturday's game was my first time in the student section, and I never anticipated leaving early. But when Nebraska went ahead 38-17 with a little over three minutes left, we decided to head out.
One friend's justification? "They don't deserve us if they play like this."
I know that will rub some of you the wrong way, and perhaps it's not the best way to think, but in our stream of consciousness yesterday, it seemed to make a lot of sense. After getting a lead Northwestern didn't do ... anything. Really, nothing. There were a few slow-developing run plays, a few drops and a few bad passes from a badly injured quarterback. It wasn't even exciting, and as NU did nothing but try to cling to its lead for 30 full minutes, it saw the game slip away faster and faster.
As another friend said, nothing about the game was even exciting.
Which is ironic, because after the first half, I was thinking about writing about what a win would mean. If this kept up, I thought, the Wildcats could legitimately win. But we all knew Northwestern would be all too predictable in its downfall, because that's what this version of Northwestern does.
Rather than try to win by as much as possible, NU did the "safe" thing — which, ironically, is not the safest idea — and tried to control the game. Failed drive after failed drive due to ultra-conservative play-calling and bad execution kept the defense on the field longer and longer, and whoosh, the lead was suddenly a blowout. As I wrote last week, that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but against all of our hope, it happened again: A boring, frustrating game, and another reminder that Northwestern is entirely irrelevant on the national scene.
It's hard to nail down exactly what went wrong in this game. The coaching was bad. The execution on both sides of the ball was perhaps as bad as it's been. Really, it was just bad (and boring) all around. But there were a few issues that really stood out.
First and foremost, the fact that Trevor Siemian is still playing, and especially that he was when the game was no longer in doubt, seems like a blatantly bad idea. Pat Fitzgerald's quote that Siemian is "not even close to 100 percent" echoes what we have heard from multiple sources, who have said that he is extremely injured. Some have suggested that Siemian at whatever percent he's currently at is still better than Zack Oliver at 100 percent, but we really don't know the answer to that.
Earlier this year, we said repeatedly that Siemian was far better than Oliver and Matt Alviti in practice, but recently, Siemian has struggled at times in practice. And while he has still made some solid throws, he knows in practice that he isn't going to get hit. We've seen Oliver once this year, and he threw a beautiful deep ball, something Siemian has struggled with. My guess, given what I've seen in practice, is that we wouldn't see much of a drop-off in production, and certainly not enough to continue to give Siemian the majority share of the first team reps in practice.
That "execution" Fitzgerald always talks about? A lot of it had to do with Siemian completely missing receivers in the second half, but again, that's a coaching issue that's causing an execution issue. The drops? That's just inexcusable, and it's all on the players, but it's curious why Tony Jones, Dan Vitale and Jayme Taylor didn't see the ball more, though that could be on the coaches or Siemian or the receivers themselves.
The miserable second half — the execution and the play-calling — was a combination of all these issues. Siemian can't really throw right now, so the coaches aren't going to let him throw. When they do, it doesn't work, so they don't change anything up. So the tendency to play "not to lose" instead of to win by as much as possible — already engrained in the coaches' heads as the right way to play football, though that notion is statistically incorrect — is going to be NU's strategy more than ever.
Northwestern likes to think it's an innovative school. If that's the case — and I'd argue it's not as true as the school thinks — then it needs to embrace every possible aspect of the game that will help the team win. It needs to be open to new ideas and open to making changes, even if those changes end up invalidating the coaching staff's own stubbornness.
What we're seeing now simply isn't working. It isn't working because of the quarterback play, it isn't working because the play-calling hasn't done everything possible to give the offense and advantage, and it isn't working because of the breakdowns in execution.
As we know from following this program, none of that is going to change. Stubbornness breeds familiarity, and we know all too well how this season will end — probably with a 6-6 record, possibly in Dallas to play a bowl game that most of the country is ignoring. If, beyond the rhetoric about competing for championships, that's fine for this program, then good on them. Just don't be too hurt if people choose not to watch it all unfold.