A little over a year-and-a-half ago, sitting in a press box in Jacksonville after Northwestern's Gator Bowl victory, I wrote this:
Today, Northwestern is a bowl champion for the first time since 1949. It's uncertain what tomorrow holds, but the one certainty is that it will only get even better than this.
"We always tell our guys act like you've been here before," Fitzgerald said. "Well we've never been here before. But as David Nwabuisi said, ‘We're here now.'
"And we're here to stay."
This was after a Northwestern offense ran around and through the Big Ten to finish the season at 10-3. It was after the Wildcats had announced plans for a breathtaking new on-campus practice facility to boost recruiting classes that had already improved exponentially.
You'll forgive me if the infectious feeling got the best of me. But it really was something — the swagger surrounding the program, the truly incredible fact that these players had consistently put together an offense that could flummox some of the most talented defenders in the Midwest and the genuine fun that it was to be around the program.
To be fair, anyone who would have predicted this collapse — a missed bowl game in 2013 and the disastrous start to 2014 — wouldn't have done so based on any substantive reasoning. By every measure, teams that recruit better generally win more games. That is a proven fact. Northwestern has recruited much better as Pat Fitzgerald's tenure has progressed, and the Wildcats' new facility should help them even more. So to see what NU did on offense in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and even during the Randy Walker era, and expect the team to get even better with better players would be reasonable.
The defense has followed that trend. That unit has better players, and by all accounts, NU should have a very solid defense this year — it was even good in the first two games, despite what skeptics might tell you. But in the past year, despite having more talent, the offense has regressed.
How can, as Trevor Siemian said, the most talented team he's ever been on be averaging a mind-numbingly low 4.65 yards per play through the first two games this season? How can the offenses of 2000 and 2009 (among many others) blow this one out of the water?
Some will dig deeper to find non-existent intangible reasons, but the real issue is more broad: Northwestern is no longer Northwestern. The culture of the program — the way they used to beat superior teams — has completely disappeared.
People like to say that Northwestern's problem is that it has gotten too conservative, and in a way, that's right. Fitzgerald punts in the wrong situation too often, and he'll give up on drives after a bad play. But the issue is bigger than that. Northwestern refuses to have the identity that contributed to the program's rise in the first place. The Wildcats don't call plays that fit their personnel, and they don't really seem to care about addressing it.
I touched on this last week after the loss to Cal, and Henry Bushnell did too in a film breakdown. The Northwestern teams of old pioneered the spread, using it to create space and make big plays by lessening the importance of individual talent. Under that same philosophy, this personnel could be even better, using their better speed and size to break out for even bigger plays.
NU has recruited players who fit that style. The Wildcats have fast receivers and running backs like Miles Shuler, Justin Jackson, Solomon Vault and Tony Jones, who can get open and make things happen after the catch, or break away for a long run. They have players they didn't used to get, like Kyle Prater and Cameron Dickerson, who can go up and get the ball. They have athletic linemen that a lot of other very good schools wanted, who may not be able to blow opponents off the line, but can zone block very well and do enough in pass protection when the field is so spread out.
Yet, Northwestern is losing. I asked Fitzgerald why improved talent has led to fewer wins, and his answer was telling.
"Our one-on-one battles and the way they happen, and then we lose, it's tough," he said.
That struck me as odd. The point of the spread is to eliminate those one-on-one situations. It gives teams who can't just "line up and beat you" a way to beat teams with superior talent. That's how Northwestern put up 54 points to beat a far more talented Michigan team in the game that introduced the spread to the world. That's how the NU teams of the mid-to-late 2000s put on offensive shows. That's how, even last year, NU's offense lit up Ohio State's 5-star defense.
And now, a year later, Northwestern's coach thinks his team's biggest problem is its one-on-one battles — the thing its offense is supposed to neutralize? So I pressed Fitzgerald, asking why that was a concern, and whether anything had changed schematically.
"We haven't changed anything," he said. "There are some things right now, from a players standpoint, that we don't think we have to our advantage."
That's baffling to me. How can Fitzgerald claim that nothing has changed, and that the problem is with the personnel, when he has so many playmakers at his disposal — at least, far more than he did earlier in his tenure, and Randy Walker and Kevin Wilson did when they pioneered the spread?
It's not that NU doesn't have the personnel to run that Walker/Wilson offense, or even the Kafka/Basanez/Persa offense. The Wildcats don't have the personnel to be what Fitzgerald wants, which it's becoming increasingly clear is more a "line up and beat you" team — or at least a hybrid of that and the spread — than a pure spread team like the NU teams of old.
The problem is, Northwestern is never going to just be able to line up and beat you. The Wildcats are recruiting better, but they're still average in the Big Ten, and their recruits are good at the system they've always run, not the one they're seemingly transitioning to.
Northwestern can win again. It can win with these players. Hell, these players have won before. But in order to win games, Northwestern has to be willing to be Northwestern. And unfortunately, the coaching staff doesn't seem intent on doing that.