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Northwestern’s players and coaches deserve a ton of credit

The Wildcats looked dead in the water a month ago, but they never wallowed or gave up. Their perseverance is being rewarded.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

This could get ugly.

Or it could get better.

That’s what we wrote three and a half weeks ago, and expectations generally leaned toward the former. At 1-3 with two shocking, heartbreaking losses, the Wildcats were spiraling in the wrong direction with the beef of the Big Ten schedule ahead. We questioned the coaching staff — offensive, defensive and even Pat Fitzgerald. Change seemed to be the only solution, and one that was necessary sooner rather than later.

Not much else could have gone wrong in the first four weeks. After an uninspired showing versus Nebraska to open conference play, it looked as if this team was going to fall flat yet again after a 10-win season.

It could have gotten ugly. Players could have quit or lost focus, coaches could have not put in quite the same preparation. The on-field product, thus, could have fallen off; it could have been a lost season, embarrassing on the national scale and disastrous on an internal program scale. It’s rare, but it does happen.

But that’s not what Pat Fitzgerald ever would have accepted, and therefore it was never in the realm of possibility for his players. Every week, Fitzgerald shouldered a lot of the blame, but he never lost confidence in his players nor his coaching staff, often saying that he’s had success with these very players and coaches in the past.

And while there’s still a long, long way to go, for right now, those same players and coaches that came under siege a few weeks ago deserve major credit for this turnaround.

It starts with Pat Fitzgerald, as it should. Fitzgerald runs the operation, and his entire demeanor is one that won’t allow players to give up or settle for anything less than their best, no matter the team’s record.

“Early in the year we weren’t a very good team,” Fitzgerald said. “We could either pout and feel sorry for ourselves and point fingers or we could stay on the grind and keep the pedal down. And that’s a credit to our coaches and most importantly a credit to our players. The only way we were gonna get it fixed was us.”

It had to start at the top of the whole operation. So Fitzgerald made changes. With injuries ravaging his team, especially in the secondary — think of outspoken leaders Keith Watkins and Matthew Harris — he structured practices differently, instead choosing to focus on conditioning and fundamentals as if it were a winter or spring practice. It got, as Fitzgerald put it, “really nasty around here.” More importantly, it put the head coach, a former player and Big Ten champion for this very program, in a new role.

“The new alpha male in the room was gonna be me, whether you like it or not,” Fitzgerald said. “We weren’t playing to our standard, and we had to force a change in our mental approach, in our toughness... As a coach you gotta change. You gotta adapt.”

Fitzgerald admitted he’s a boring guy. He doesn’t do a whole lot of flashy things that will draw headlines. But he knew he had to step up. After over a decade at the helm, he had to change.

It wasn’t just Fitzgerald, though. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall opened up the playbook, and his confidence has been rewarded with an average of over 400 yards of total offense and nearly 40 points per game over the past three contests. His quarterback — a major leash on the potential of last year’s team and a guy who struggled early this year — has thrown for nine touchdowns and one interception during that stretch. McCall holds the reigns to an offense that has the conference’s best running back and best wide receiver.

There have been several instances in which McCall has simply been better about maintaining an offensive balance, an area he struggled in last year. Down 14-0 in East Lansing, McCall dialed up an eight-play, 61-yard drive that featured five runs and three passes. Instead of panicking, he put the ball in the hands of his best player while keeping his quarterback involved despite a pick-six two drives earlier. That’s the gameplan Northwestern had coming in, and he stuck with it.

McCall has been nothing short of outstanding the past three games in his play selection. One of the best was a two-play redzone sequence versus Michigan State. He ordered up a speed option to the right — which Thorson pitched — then followed with one to the left, which Thorson kept, fooling all 11 Spartan defenders for an easy score.

McCall seems to have the personnel to run a true spread with quick receivers like Austin Carr, Flynn Nagel and Solomon Vault on the outside. He also has a running back that’s one of the best in the nation and needs touches, too. Right now, he’s getting them at an appropriate rate. The variety of packages Northwestern has used over the past three weeks has kept teams off balance; the Wildcats can bunch it in and play power football in short yardage situations, as they have done with great success as of late, or they can spread five wide and make defenders responsible for every blade of grass between the sidelines.

Defensively, the Wildcats have survived an unbelievable number of injuries on the back end and come up with key stops in short yardage and redzone situations as well as important interceptions. Three of this roster’s top four cornerbacks missed the Indiana game, and one making his first collegiate start left very early, forcing cornerback-turned-wide-receiver-turned-cornerback Marcus McShepard to pair up with Montre Hartage. And while the unit was by no means great — Richard Lagow missed a lot of open guys — it was timely, opportunistic and ultimately enough to win. Defensive backs coach Jerry Brown’s ability to adapt and persevere has been remarkable.

But that’s not the only area where Mike Hankwitz’s unit deserves praise. The run defense, much-maligned after getting shredded by the likes of Western Michigan and Nebraska, has held three potent running games to under 100 yards. In the Big Ten, if you can’t stop the run, you’ll have no shot. That the Wildcats have done a total 180 in the run defense department has somewhat alleviated the difficulties at the cornerback position.

Although the coaches deserve plenty of praise, I’d be remiss to not discuss the players. After all, they are the ones on the field, and their performances in the past month have made the opening month look like an aberration.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

For starters, Clayton Thorson has been outstanding. He’s been terrific under pressure, and his mental toughness has grown leaps and bounds from last year. In 2015, he might have curled up into a ball facing deficits at Kinnick and Spartan Stadium. In 2016, he became the best player on the field in both instances.

The sophomore quarterback’s numbers speak for themselves: He’s third in the Big Ten in yards per game, tied for second in passing touchdowns and fourth in interception rate. When his team has needed him most, he has played his best football. All this comes as just a sophomore who some deemed a failure after his team’s 0-2 start.

He didn’t get this way without help, though. Justin Jackson might be the most under-appreciated player in nation. A steady presence since he stepped onto campus, the junior running back has been outstanding with the relative little help he has received: Northwestern ranks 122nd in the nation in opportunity rate, a stat that loosely measure how well the offensive line does it job on run plays. Still, he diverts credit to his blockers every time. He’s the consummate teammate, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t get the headlines.

You’ll rarely see a running back that operates in a spread offense who succeeds without top-end speed. But Jackson is a rare breed. His vision, patience, quickness and football IQ are incredible.

"Justin is probably the most cerebral football player I've been around as far as knowing the intricacies of the game and the offense," Auston Anderson told Inside NU in the spring. "I mean, you ask Justin anything, he's gonna know what the offensive line is doing, who's going where, what the receivers are doing, what the quarterbacks read.”

On the outside, Carr has been otherworldly good and Nagel has taken a major jump forward. But other guys have stepped up, too. Vault continues to make strides as a route runner following his switch to the wide receiver position, and he hauled in the first score of the game versus Indiana. Macan Wilson scored his first career touchdown. Andrew Scanlan, described as “the grandpa” of the group, has made important and timely contributions to the offense. The difference between this group from what we expected two months ago to what has unfolded has been integral to the team’s reborn offense.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the outside noise of the program you shut off,” FItzgerald said. “But occasionally, you use some of that noise to make the guys mad. And the wide receiving corps had a lot of noise over the past two years. ... They put a chip on their shoulder in the offseason.”

The offensive line has been much-improved, too, even if the advanced numbers don’t say so. Blake Hance has made the most notable improvement after a rough start, but the unit has made incredible progress across the board. J.B. Butler has stepped in and played unbelievably well with captain Connor Mahoney out. Thorson has been sacked four times in the last three games after going down 16 times in the first four.

“We didn’t play our best football, not even close, and we’re still having to play our best football,” Butler said. “That bye week was big for us. We had a couple days off and we got to get healthy, get some rest, but then once we got to work, coach Fitz wasn’t taking it easy on us, none of the coaches were, and we had to step up.”

On the defensive side, the team’s two best players are playing their best football, but for different reasons. Anthony Walker Jr. came into the year trying to live up to All-American hype and deal with a knee issue. After a dominant 11-tackle, 2-tackle for loss game versus Indiana, it’s safe to say he’s back. In the secondary, Godwin Igwebuike has taken every injury in stride and looked better than ever. He’s been forced to play all over the field and hasn’t complained. He’s just worked and worked and worked to help his unit overcome the injuries. It also doesn’t hurt to have Kyle Queiro next to him.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

But perhaps no players embody the adversity Northwestern has overcome better than two guys: Ifeadi Odenigbo and the aforementioned McShepard. Odenigbo went from liability and backup to the Big Ten’s sack leader — he has seven in the last three games and eight overall. McShepard’s story is even more incredible. He went from contributing as a corner last year to being buried on the wide receiver depth chart this year. Then when asked to switch back again, he easily could have grown frustrated. Pat Fitzgerald admitted he “felt terrible” about the request. Instead, McShepard responded with “Coach, whatever you need for me to do for the team, I’ll do.”

Sooner than even he could have anticipated, he was doing just that. McShepard was nowhere near perfect in his first action back on the defensive side of things. But without his sacrifice — his extra work, his willingness to start over again — Northwestern might be 3-4 right now.

“He could be a guy who would pout and feel better for himself,” Fitzgerald said. “Instead he’s played better every week.”

Sound familiar?

When Northwestern was struggling early, Pat Fitzgerald never lost faith. He never lost his players or his assistants, either. Rather, he decided to change his style so his team could change the direction of its season.

And that’s what they did. They got it fixed. That’s not to say this is anywhere near a finished product, but the results of the past three games — two on the road in hostile environments — are overwhelmingly encouraging.

“I have zero, zero answers besides we didn’t coach well enough and we didn’t play well enough,” Fitzgerald said. “But we’ve stayed the course, and we’ve kept grinding, and good things usually happen when you respond.”

Pat Fitzgerald responded. He did it in a different way than he has in a long time, but he pulled out all the stops to right the ship. Many people will say this renaissance came out of nowhere. But if you truly know the program, you know it came from him first. Credit him for his leadership. Credit his players and staff for following him.

And credit this program, from top to bottom, for the incredible resilience, grit and determination it has displayed during this run.