In two weeks of college football action, Northwestern has seen two opponents come into Ryan Field, outplay the hosts for 60 minutes, seal victories late and erupt off their sidelines after securing what will almost assuredly be season-defining wins.
Northwestern has lost those two games by a combined three points. Why have they lost those games? The little things. A missed block. A missed assignment. A missed tackle. A miscommunication. A missed field goal.
These little things—errors committed by just one person but that lead to a chain reaction—have become a common denominator in losses over the past two years.
Dan Vitale, after the 38-0 loss to Michigan last season: "One-man breakdowns hurt us. Offense is an 11-man operation. We just have to get our attitude back."
Dean Lowry after the 40-10 loss to Iowa the following week: "Poor execution, guys not fitting right and too many one-man breakdowns.
Fitzgerald after the 45-6 loss to Tennessee: "I think right now the overall theme is just consistency. We've (as coaches) gotta be more consistent and we've gotta do a better job getting our guys to do that."
Fitzgerald after the Week 1 loss this season to Western Michigan: “I don’t think we fit things properly with the defensive ends and linebackers today...We got a long week ahead of us.”
And finally Fitzgerald on Saturday: “We had a lot of one-man and individual breakdowns offensively.”
One-man breakdowns happen. They happen to even the very best teams. They happened for Northwestern last year, and not just only in the losses. Not every play is perfect—it’s impossible for that to be the case.
The difference was that not only were those breakdowns more infrequent last year, but they were more often overcome. Going through all of Northwestern’s close wins last year, the impressive success rate in “the little things” at the vital time was the difference in a season full of tight contests, including five (and a perfect 5-0 record in) games decided by seven points or fewer.
- Week 1: After Stanford cuts the lead to 13-6 with 7:26 left, Northwestern goes on a nine-play drive that chews up over half of the time remaining, including a massive third-and-eight conversion from Clayton Thorson to Miles Shuler. The drive ends with a successful 49-yarder from Jack Mitchell, a dagger into the Cardinal comeback hopes.
- Week 3: Northwestern plays an ugly 45 minutes of football offensively, but picks up a key third-and-one on a simple play off tackle run that ends up with Warren Long in the endzone. If a single man doesn’t fulfill his assignment perfectly on this play, the game could have ended quite differently.
- Week 4: Leading 24-19 with 4:34 to go, Northwestern goes on a 10-play drive that includes two key third-down conversions. The Wildcats leave Ball State with 11 seconds and no timeouts remaining. Additionally, Northwestern’s defense gives up just 10 points off turnovers despite three Thorson turnovers, all in his own territory.
- Week 7: Marcus McShepard, then a cornerback, tips away a Nebraska two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game, and the offense runs the final 4:23 off the clock with a nine-play, 50-yard drive.
- Week 8: In a game in which Clayton Thorson leaves early and is replaced by Zack Oliver, the Wildcats punt with 3:54 left on the clock, down by one. Fitzgerald needs his defense to give him a three-and-out, and the unit does just that, stopping superstar Saquon Barkley on third-and-one. After a 10-play drive that included a 23-yard completion to Austin Carr on 3rd-and-15, Northwestern takes the lead with nine seconds left, courtesy of a Mitchell game-winner.
- Week 9: Tied with cellar-dweller Purdue with 10 minutes to go, Northwestern goes on a 12-play, 58-yard drive that includes a perfect four-for-four success rate on third downs. The Wildcats follow that up by forcing a three-and-out by the Boilermakers and proceed to run the clock out from there.
- Week 10: Northwestern forces five Wisconsin turnovers and... well... #JazzDidntCatchIt.
- Week 11: After throwing a pick six to let Illinois within a touchdown, Thorson resorts solely to the running game, which results in 45 of the 46 yards on the very next drive. Mitchell knocks through a 39-yarder and the Illini don’t score another point.
Those instances weren’t the most memorable of the 2015 season—you’ll probably remember Kyle Queiro’s interception of Stanford’s Kevin Hogan to seal the game or a few big plays from Dan Vitale more clearly—but those were the types of plays (or series of plays) that Northwestern made on a consistent basis last year when it needed to most. Compare that to this year.
- Week 1: Northwestern goes on an impressive drive against Western Michigan, traversing 59 yards in just six plays and just 2:44 of game time. But that final yard and play results in disaster. Clayton Thorson fumbles into the endzone for a touchback. The defense, put in a very similar position to the one it was in last year against Penn State, gives up not one but two first downs. On a crucial third down, Mike Hankwitz calls for press coverage, but Montre Hartage plays off, and Zach Terrell completes a relatively simple pass for a crucial first down. Western Michigan essentially goes Northwestern, 2015 version on Northwestern, 2016 version.
- Week 2: Northwestern finally breaks through against Illinois State with a touchdown toss to Austin Carr. Like so many games last year, Northwestern has found a way to come up with the perfect drive at the perfect time to win a very imperfect game, right? Wrong. The defense gives up an 11-play, 71-yard drive and the Redbirds kick a game-winner as time expires. Earlier, Mitchell misses his only attempt, a 33-yarder.
Of course you can look at the team names from 2015 and the team names from 2016 and realize an obvious difference in supposed skill level, but that actually isn’t the case. Western Michigan is just four spots below Penn State in this year’s Sagarin Ratings. Illinois State, meanwhile, is rated 97th, 20 spots ahead of Ball State. Yes, it’s early, but the difference between a couple of opponents Northwestern barely beat last year and a couple of opponents it has lost to by a slim margin is not as great as one would think.
There are a bevy of issues with this team that we can point to specifically. The offensive line is an absolute mess: overpowered even against supposedly inferior competition (and certainly inferior competition compared to what the Wildcats will face from basically here on out). The defense can’t get off the field (124th in the nation in opponent time of possession). The offense—after a somewhat promising opening weekend—reverted back to 2015 form, and perhaps even worse. Without Justin Jackson for the latter portions of the game, the Northwestern offense looked downright incompetent at times against an FCS team, proving that Clayton Thorson (17 for 41 for 191 yards, a putrid 4.7 yards per attempt) hasn’t developed into a guy that can win games by himself. Not even against FCS competition. Even with Jackson in the game, the offensive line was so bad that the Wildcats essentially abandoned the run game, the one aspect of the offense that had kept the Northwestern offense—often on life alert—alive last season. When all else failed offensively in 2015, Jackson and Long promised four yards and a cloud of dust. Against Illinois State, though, Northwestern couldn’t even count on that.
But back to the little things. When a team plays so many games decided by such little margins, the little things often determine the outcome. Last year they did, and Northwestern did all the little things right. This year, it has done almost all of the little things wrong at crucial junctures of both of its contests.
The little things add up to the biggest thing: wins and losses. When a team does the little things right—converts a third down to run an extra two minutes of clock, gets a big stop to get off the field or even simply makes a field goal—it wins. Northwestern did that last year. Through two weeks, Northwestern has not done that this year. And that adds up to two losses.
“When we don’t finish, that’s on me as a coach,” Fitzgerald said following the Week 1 loss. “When you play as poorly as we did, the football gods go against you. We got what we deserved.”
Blame it on the football gods. Blame it on luck. Blame it on whatever you want.
Until Northwestern does the little things right, it will continue to lose games, whether it’s Western Michigan or Michigan State, Illinois State or Ohio State. Doing the little things right matters. It wins games. And right now, Northwestern can’t do either.