Pat Fitzgerald likes to say that the goal for Northwestern's program should be to compete for championships, at least on the Big Ten West level. That's a lofty goal for a program like this one, especially considering that the Wildcats have never seriously competed for a conference or division championship in Fitzgerald's 10 years as head coach. But it can be done in the modern era (see: 1995, 1996 and 2000), and it's the publicly stated goal of the program.
That's why, when asked about potential staff changes after NU's win over Duke to move to 1-2 on the season, Fitzgerald's answer was puzzling.
Fitz, on criticism of his staff: "I think they shut that off pretty well" after win against Duke— Daily NU Sports (@DailyNU_Sports) September 18, 2016
This comes after the much-maligned offensive staff — one almost every fan thinks needs some sort of change — commanded an offense that averaged 4.77 yards per play. At the time, that average would have ranked 112th in the country, which is exactly where the Wildcats ranked. The offense against Duke was, in fact, pretty miserable, hitting on a few big plays and doing next to nothing the rest of the time.
Fast-forward a week, after a 24-13 loss to Nebraska, and suddenly Fitzgerald was angry. The offense was actually better, averaging 5.54 yards per play — that average would be good for a whopping 84th nationally (!!!) — but Fitzgerald laid it on the team. Well, the players. Not the coaches.
He blamed the starters for "not performing":
"I think we had an opportunity to win all three losses and we didn't...When you go out with the 1s [starters], you're expected to perform, and if you don't, you don't deserve to be out there."
And the offense in general:
"I'll have to look at the entire tape before we pass judgement. The narrative is that we had two 3rd downs that we had bad holding penalties on...The young men in that locker room have got to figure out the discipline that it takes to become a winner."
Four games into a nightmare season, followed by two previous seasons of offensive nightmares, Fitzgerald is not going to blame his coaches for clear coaching issues. He's going to praise the coaches when the offense plays poorly in wins — as it did 10 times last year — and simply ignore how they do in losses. So with that in mind, how on earth can fans expect NU to compete for championships, or even get better?
To be clear, the players were not good in the loss to Nebraska, nor in any other game this season. The offensive line was abysmal yet again, the baseball player-turned-kicker looked like a baseball player-turned-kicker, Clayton Thorson had one consistent target (Austin Carr) and was terribly inaccurate on a number of throws and the backup defensive backs gave up easy yards on every pass because they're instructed to play 10 yards off their receivers. The question is, how did Fitzgerald expect anything different?
The team that showed up against Nebraska was the exact same team we saw in the first three games, and the offense that has shown up this season was the same offense that everybody except the coaches saw coming after last year's abysmal show. The players might not be good, but at some point, you can't really fault them for being who they are, particularly if almost all of them have failed to live up to the potential they showed as recruits.
That's not a discipline problem. That's a coaching problem.
There are clear examples of every offensive coach underperforming. How in the hell is every offensive lineman in this program — players who had offers from the likes of Nebraska, Missouri, Michigan, etc. — so weak that they're unable to hold their own against Illinois State? That's not "leadership" or "execution" — that's the inability of the strength and conditioning program to get power five-caliber recruits to a low-level FBS level. That's the offensive line coach neglecting to teach leverage.
How can Fitzgerald make half the dang team wide receivers, yet still have a receiving corps that consistently ranks among the worst in the Big Ten? How can quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Mick McCall squander TWO four-star prospects, not produce an offense that ranks better than 110th nationally (out of 128) and still have full support of his head coach?
How can Fitzgerald justify abandoning the spread for a pro-style offense when recruiting against three pro-style teams in his division that have had significantly more success with that style? How can he justify failing to use the entirety of the field, using space as a neutralizer just as past NU teams have, when he has at least a little less overall talent than his division foes?
This isn't an issue of cherry-picked stats, a small sample size or a few bad eggs. This is a staff that has consistently failed to develop players across every position on offense, yet it's somehow the players' fault that they haven't been given proper training?
Northwestern cannot get meaningfully better in its current state. Maybe the offense can get up to the 80s in the national ratings (whoopee!), but this staff has shown that it's not going to get better than that, especially with the abandonment of a true spread offense — the only offense McCall has ever had success with.
If Northwestern wants to average six wins per year and occasionally luck into 10 wins, with losses to the only good teams it plays (save Stanford laying an egg In Week 1), then the current staff will work just fine. But if the Wildcats actually want to compete in the awful Big Ten West, or even have a team that could challenge the Big Ten East winner once in a blue moon, then they simply need to make changes to their staff. There is no evidence of potential improvement.
Next year, Fitzgerald will still tell everyone that he'll do whatever necessary within the rules to compete for championships. But if the staff is still intact, as he apparently intends on happening, he's simply lying to you.