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Outback Bowl loss illuminates Northwestern’s growth, ceiling

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Northwestern hit its ceiling pretty hard by making the Outback Bowl, but it's a ceiling that's much higher than the one the program has had in previous years.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA — The scoreboard read Tennessee 31, Northwestern 6. The Raymond James Stadium clock wound down matter-of-factly. There was no suspense, nor was there palpable disappointment among fans. Below, a choppy, chewed-up, worn down field was now graced by backups, and even then, the ones in orange were dominant, just as the starters had been before them. They marched for a touchdown. Later, they returned an interception for a score to emphatically cap an Outback Bowl victory over their purple counterparts.

But when Pat Fitzgerald stepped into his press conference, he was all smiles. His team, about 20 minutes earlier, had walked off the field to a standing ovation. Now, he was joking about getting too many "negative questions."

"This is one game at the end of a spectacular season," he said. "If you can't laugh guys, you gotta check your pulse."

But Fitzgerald was also realistic. "We've got a lot of work to do obviously," he said following a sigh. "Today's a strong indication of that."

In fact, today was a great barometer for the entire program. Begin by considering the fact that a 10-win Northwestern was even here at all. Then look at the game's first quarter, when Northwestern seemed to match Tennessee blow for blow. But then remember how Tennessee grew into the game, asserted its superiority, and comprehensively beat Northwestern. In the third quarter, the Volunteers seemingly had an advantage at every position on the field. The final score, 45-6, reflected that.

The fact that Northwestern was able to hang with Tennessee reflected the program's progress. Butch Jones has pulled in a top-10 recruiting class each of the past two years, but the Wildcats' defense outplayed Tennessee's offense early. On the defensive side of the ball, Northwestern has recruited and developed at a level that allows it to compete with top 25 teams.

But it still doesn't have elite athletes, and that deficit eventually surfaced. "There wasn't a whole lot that we saw today that we didn't expect," Fitzgerald said. Instead, Tennessee just lined up and beat Northwestern at the line of scrimmage.

You can say that the coaches could've done more to 'put Northwestern's players in better places to be successful.' But it would've taken a brilliant gameplan.

And that's something that offensive coordinator Mick McCall has proven incapable of putting together. Which brings us to the main issue of Friday. While Northwestern's defense has progressed rapidly to a top-25 level, its offense simply hasn't. It has lagged behind, or even regressed. As has been the case all season, as the defense tried to hang with Tennessee, the offense let it down.

McCall's gameplanning and playcalling aren't the stories of the day though. Perhaps his overall scheme is. More likely, the entire offensive staff's recruiting and developing of its players are.

Fitzgerald, to the extent that he would do so in front of a microphone, sort of admitted that. "We've gotta continue to upgrade the talent in our program, so we can continue to have competition. We've got that right now on defense, and I think that's why you saw the defense improve from last year to this year. And I really feel strongly and positively about our young talent on offense. We've just gotta have a more competitive offseason."

Translated from coachspeak, the offense just doesn't have the necessary tools. Clayton Thorson is young, and has raw talent, but Friday, he wasn't good and didn't have much around him. The lack of development of quarterbacks by McCall of the past five years has been worrying. In the trenches, while Northwestern's defensive line has dominated Big Ten games, the offensive line is still porous. It's neither overpowering nor athletically impressive. And Northwestern's receivers are the team's worst unit. It's not all that close. Receivers that can't get separation or catch inhibit an offense so much.

It's odd that the talent on offense hasn't kept up with the talent on defense. "We're killing it in recruiting," Fitzgerald said when asked what a 10-win season could do for the program. It's unclear who shoulders the blame then for the sputtering offense, and why improved recruiting hasn't brought results on that side of the ball. With the defense more than matched by Tennessee on Friday, the offense's ineptitude shown through, and with it, so did the limitations of Northwestern's 2015 team.

But back to the idea of the day being a barometer. It ended with the press conferences, and reactions to that afternoon's game.

When it comes to perception, bowl games are funny. They can be viewed as so many different things. They're the final game of a season, and for some, of a career. But they're also not really part of the season. They garner more attention than regular season games, but could be viewed as less important.

In the end, they're also just football games. But more so than any other football game, this one has to be viewed through the lens of the entire season.

"I'm keeping it in perspective because it should be kept in perspective," Fitzgerald said. "You win 10 football games, it's a darn good football season."

And of course, he's right. It's just that Northwestern's inability to get that 11th win showed that, at this point in its development, it has a ceiling. It hit that ceiling pretty hard Friday. But it's a ceiling that, as the 10 wins proved, is much higher than it was 10 years ago, three years ago, or even last year.

"We're [getting to] where we want to get on the field," Fitzgerald said. "But we're not quite there yet."