We’ve written at length on this site about how Northwestern was fairly lucky in its 10-3 season last year. The Wildcats were a good team—especially on defense—but, based off various statistical measures, such as S&P+ and second-order wins, they had no business winning 10 games.
When Northwestern lost, it was by a very large margin and when the Wildcats won, it tended to be a closely contested affair.
NU lost to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee by a combined 107 points. For perspective, excluding a 41-0 win over FCS opponent Eastern Illinois, the total point margin of Northwestern’s nine wins was just 78 points. Certainly the Wildcats’ stout defense had something to do with all of those close wins, but the odds point to such slim wins being more a result of fortune than talent.
So far this season, the football gods have completely turned the tables on Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch. The losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State have been by a total of three points. If not for a goal-line fumble and a last-second field goal, we could be talking about a 2-0 Northwestern team that escaped some close calls, similar to last year. Not the case.
But to say Northwestern got “unlucky” in those games would be ridiculous to say. The Wildcats played very poorly against lesser competition each of the last two Saturdays and clearly did not deserve to sneak away with wins. The difference, at least so far, between the 2015 and 2016 seasons is that last year, weak performances (see the Duke and Wisconsin games, for example) turned into wins, not crushing losses.
This makes assessing the Wildcats through a sixth of the season kind of a difficult task. Everything went right for Northwestern last year and nothing has gone the Wildcats’ way thus far. Where is this team’s true ability, with the hard-to-quantify variable of luck thrown out of the equation?
While the sky may seem to be falling in Evanston thanks to the dreadful start, the truth is that this team still is going to wind up near bowl eligibility. This group, even with the major injury problems it has had to deal with, is not as bad as its record would indicate.
Clayton Thorson will likely settle down and continue to mesh better with his admittedly thin wide receiving corps, and the usual Justin Jackson will return to his normal self after an injury-plagued game last Saturday. Anthony Walker, one of the top linebackers in the country, will get used to the way opposing offenses have been attacking him and return to his 2015 form.
The lack of secondary depth and injury to Warren Long—forcing Auston Anderson and maybe John Moten into the backup running back spot—are both enormous problems that will be exaggerated once Big Ten play starts. However, it’s unlikely this team continues to be this bad in all three aspects of the game going forward.
A good way to start the trek back toward relevance is by beating Duke this Saturday. The Blue Devils, who partially handed last year’s meeting to the Wildcats, are without quarterback Thomas Sirk, who is out for the season with an Achilles tear. After crushing N.C. Central in Week 1, David Cutcliffe’s team fell at home to Wake Forest last week and don’t appear to be as formidable a unit as in 2015.
Then, the week after, Northwestern finishes up its four-game home stretch against Nebraska, another beatable foe. With two more decent performances, the Wildcats could suddenly end up at 2-2, which feels worlds away from 0-2. The Wildcats need some breaks to go their way, but they also just have to play better. There’s no way that a team with the talent to go 10-3 last season and returning several players does not have the ability to do just that.
However, with more struggles in crunch time, Northwestern could fathomably lose more games this September than in all of the 2015 season. With improved play, however, there is opportunity to get a confidence-boosting win versus another struggling team. Northwestern has to take advantage of that ahead of Big Ten play.