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Where are We Wednesday, Week 5: This could get ugly or it could get better

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Pat Fitzgerald needs to back up his talk, fast, or the 2016 season will completely fall apart.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

A new feature to our gameweek schedule this season is Where Are We Wednesday, a mid-week evaluation of where the team currently sits in the big picture of things, whether that be the Big Ten West, the Big Ten or even the nation. As Northwestern grinds through a 12-game regular season, that location changes every week based on what both the team and the teams around them do. Here’s the Week 5 edition.

Northwestern has reached a critical juncture in the 2016 season.

This particular juncture isn’t one that the team envisioned finding itself in with one third of the campaign gone. No, September was supposed to be a warmup for the gauntlet of October. We’re talking about a team that won 10 games last season (which, by the way, wasn’t entirely a lucky fluke) and brought back loads of talent, after all. It seemed inevitable that the Wildcats would grab at least two, probably three or even four wins at Ryan Field in the opening month.

Yet here we are. The fact of the matter is that Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats went 1-3 in September.

There are multiple reasons why things have gotten to this point. For one, injuries have hampered a team that already had questionable depth following the loss of some key seniors. There have been some unfortunate bounces. More than anything else, though, Northwestern has simply not executed—at almost every position—at a level required to win at the collegiate football level.

“[We’ve played] three games that we, if we play the way we’re capable of, I think we have a chance to win all three, and we didn’t,” Fitzgerald said after Saturday’s loss to Nebraska. And he’s right. “I’m going to look hard at why we’re not playing and executing consistently.”

Throughout the press conference, Fitzgerald expressed the same confusion and disappointment felt by many Northwestern fans regarding his team’s performance. He accepted the blame. And then he vowed to turn things around.

“Right now, we’re a very inconsistent football team, and that falls squarely on my shoulders,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not going to sit here, and I’m not going to take it. I’m not going to accept it. It’s not acceptable the way we’re playing and it starts and ends with me, so I’m going to fix it.”

We could talk at length about whether or not Fitzgerald or several members of his staff, specifically offensive coordinator Mick McCall and offensive line coach Adam Cushing, are the right people for their respective jobs, but that’s for another day. They’re not going anywhere during this season—that much is almost certain—so it’s on them to solve the Wildcats’ issues.

Fitzgerald has promised to do just that.

“I’m not going to pout, I’m not going to feel sorry for myself,” Fitzgerald said. “The only way I know how to fix it is to go out and do it. Go out and practice it, go out and fix it. These guys...better get ready to get their rear ends coached off this week.”

This is one of the most important weeks of practice of Fitzgerald’s coaching career because, at this point, there are still two ways this season could go. This Saturday, we’ll learn a lot about which way that’s going to be.

If Northwestern plays like it has through four weeks, Iowa will absolutely throttle the Wildcats like it has in the past two meetings. Fans of the team know it, the players know it, and Fitzgerald knows it.

“When we get out in Iowa City, we’ve gotta perform, and it’s going to be tough,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s going to be an incredibly huge challenge for us, and if we don’t go out there with the right attitude and the right preparation, we’ll get our fannies whipped. We’ll get crushed.”

If an unchanged Northwestern team shows up to Kinnick Stadium and falls to 1-4, it’s not as if the schedule gets any easier afterwards. If nothing changes before Saturday, why should we have any sliver of hope the Wildcats could be able to win at No. 17 Michigan State or vs. No. 8 Wisconsin? With the game at No. 2 Ohio State an all-but-certain loss, Northwestern could be staring at a 2-7 (or even 1-8 if the defense doesn’t show up against Indiana) record in five weeks.

That’s the bad way things could go. Fitzgerald can’t let that happen. At that point, a return to 5-7 is the best-case scenario. After all the progress Northwestern made last season, a massive step back like that would come with consequences in recruiting and thus, the general direction of the program.

The other thing that could happen is that Fitzgerald could, in fact, fix it. It would be the most impressive feat of his coaching career, but it’s not impossible. There are things to build upon.

Clayton Thorson has shown flashes of excellence at times and his receivers have, surprisingly, been outstanding. Justin Jackson is still a special talent, whether he’s been able to show that or not. The defense has studs in Tyler Lancaster, Jaylen Prater and Godwin Igwebuike, and Anthony Walker Jr. should continue to get better. The most pressing tasks for Fitzgerald and his staff are getting the offensive line and the youthful non-Igwebuike members of the secondary ready to play in a hostile environment. Oh, and finding a kicker who can convert from short distances.

He has his work cut out for him.

If the team can come together on the road and play a complete game, an upset is a possibility. Iowa’s last two Saturdays have featured a home loss to an (admittedly very good) FCS team and a seven-point win over Rutgers. From there, the Wildcats would have a chance to keep it going and pick up wins against Indiana and one of Michigan State (slightly more likely) or Wisconsin (slightly less likely). If they somehow beat the Hawkeyes and Badgers—who haven’t won in Evanston this millenium—they’d be right back in the thick of the divisional race.

Obviously, it doesn’t look likely given what we’ve seen on the field in September. Instead, the faith lies in believing Fitzgerald when he says he’s going to do everything he can to make it happen. For their part, the players aren’t giving up on the season either.

“We’re close,” Carr said after Saturday’s game. “I think as a team, we’re tired of being close. Offensively, we need to finish. Defensively, we need to put a whole game together. We can’t let these losses ruin our whole season. We’re going to look forward, we have to keep pushing.”

They have no other option.

Northwestern’s 2016 season is headed into dangerous waters. If Pat Fitzgerald can right the ship and at least salvage something respectable out of the next two months, it will be a major testament to his coaching savvy. Remember, he coached the team that beat both Wisconsin and Notre Dame in 2014 after an inauspicious start.

If he can’t turn things around, though, the season will spiral out of control, potentially with severe long-term effects.

We may sound like a broken record, but facing a team that has struggled recently, Northwestern still has a tiny, flickering light at the end of the tunnel. But that light is fleeting quickly. If Northwestern loses to Iowa on Saturday and continues to lose, the rest of the season and the program will be just like the man in the tunnel. Lost and without direction. And ultimately, hopeless for the foreseeable future, until there are major changes.