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Where are We Wednesday: Will another mid-season surge prevent necessary changes from being made?

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Northwestern is winning games, which is fun. But do those wins come at a long-term cost?

The Foundation - Northwestern Athletics

I’m torn.

As I sit here late on a Tuesday night, in the lounge of my Northwestern dorm, preparing to write this column about the current state of the football program, I’m torn. I’ve spent the last 30 minutes or so debating between two directions to take this, two ways to spin recent developments.

Those recent developments are that, well, Northwestern has won two Big Ten games in a row. It’s been a much-needed response to the season’s 2-3 start. It’s been fun. It’s always fun when your team wins, especially against a hated rival like Iowa. And even though the No. 16 team in the country is coming to town, the Wildcats have a legitimate chance to make it three in a row on Saturday. If they can do it, they may well be favored in their last four games.

The optimist in me wants to write about that. It wants me to make the headline of this piece “Who cares about the division and Northwestern losing to a couple Top-5 teams, it’s time to finish the season strong,” or something along those lines. And I seriously considered writing that. It’s how I feel about this season and what I want to happen.

Yet, if you’re this far, you probably already read the actual headline. That’s because the nagging feeling in my head wouldn’t let me ignore the greater issues at hand by writing the first column. Instead, I can’t get past the notion that this mid-season surge, with the division out of reach ever since that September 30th loss to Wisconsin, is going to do the same thing it did last year when the Wildcats won three straight after a 1-3 start.

It’s going to prevent necessary changes to the offensive coaching staff from being made, isn’t it?

With a really weak post-Michigan St. schedule, Northwestern will get to 7, 8, hell, maybe 9 wins in 2017. It’ll have a chance at just the fourth bowl win in program history. In the historical context of this program, that’s a wildly successful season. Pat Fitzgerald, heading into year 13 of his lifetime contract, will be satisfied with the team’s second-half surge and the program’s “momentum.” He’ll retain his entire staff for the 375th consecutive season.

Boasting a talented defense, a senior quarterback and pair of dynamic running backs, and a talented 2018 recruiting class, we’ll talk our way into next year being the year the Cats compete for a Big Ten West title. Fitz will undoubtedly establish that as the team’s goal, as he does every year.

And then Northwestern’s offense will come up short in big games and the Wildcats will watch Wisconsin cruise to Indianapolis once again.

That’s been the cycle of Northwestern football in recent years. It started after the 2012 season, when the Wildcats went 10-3, including the first bowl victory in 63 years. Northwestern got the monkey off its back. It was glorious. After the game, Fitzgerald said: “We're here now. And we're here to stay!"

Then came 10 combined wins from the 2013 and 2014 seasons, despite having a future NFL starter at quarterback. 2015 was another strong, 10-win season. Sure, Northwestern lost by a combined 123-16 to three of the best teams it played, but the program was, once again, here to stay. The Wildcats went 6-3 down the stretch last season, and after an impressive bowl win, I wrote that bigger things were ahead.

Now Northwestern is back above .500 this season and another great finish is within reach. Here’s the thing: getting to 7 or 8 wins won’t fix the overarching problems holding this program back from its stated goal of winning championships.

Alright, I’ve made it long enough without overtly stating it: Another winning season will convince Fitz to keep Mick McCall and Adam Cushing on his staff. With that duo leading the offense, the unit has let down a number of talented defenses in the Fitzgerald era. Here’s a look at Northwestern’s finishes in offensive and defensive S&P+ in every year since McCall took over as offensive coordinator.

S&P+ ranks, 2008-2017

Year Offense S&P+ Defense S&P+ Overall S&P+
Year Offense S&P+ Defense S&P+ Overall S&P+
2008 72 40 53
2009 90 86 92
2010 50 86 72
2011 43 95 84
2012 48 41 44
2013 76 59 63
2014 100 30 69
2015 111 4 57
2016 63 32 49
2017 92 48 69

Other than 2010 and 2011, Northwestern’s defense has been better than its offense every season. The Wildcats have boasted a top-50 defense in four straight years; three of those have been paired with one of the country’s 40 worst offenses.

That includes this season. It has taken a few games, but Northwestern’s defense has emerged as a stout, formidable unit led by veterans (Godwin Igwebuike, Nate Hall) and young players (Paddy Fisher, Sam Miller) alike.

The offense, meanwhile, has struggled from Day 1 against teams not named Bowling Green. It was bad against Duke. It let the Wildcats down in Madison. It was dreadful against Penn State, to the point where watching the game caused an existential crisis.

And let’s not act like this modest two-game winning streak has been thanks to drastic improvements on that front. Maryland has the worst defense in the Big Ten. It took Northwestern almost 40 minutes to score points against an Iowa team missing two defensive starters in a game won by defense and Justin Jackson’s brilliance.

McCall’s McPlayCalling simply hasn’t improved during his tenure. Northwestern’s spread offense remains boring and predictable, even when it tries to do creative things.

Northwestern is currently 125th out of 130 in IsoPPP, a stat that measures explosiveness.

McCall has had more than enough time to evolve and prove himself. The fact that that hasn’t happened makes the calls for his firing that have been made for years understandable.

Cushing, the man in charge of the offensive line, deserves blame too. His underwhelming units have, at times, been the No. 1 problem in losses — 2016 Illinois State and 2017 Wisconsin come to mind.

In the face of criticism, Fitzgerald has constantly had his staff’s back. Last season, he said McCall and Co. “shut down” the calls for their heads after sneaking out a win over Duke. Just this Monday, here’s a comment he had about the magical game-winning Jackson play from Saturday:

“I think it was a really good call by Mick, to start off with.”

Given how much he loves to take pride in the longevity of his staff, there’s no reason to believe Fitzgerald will make any changes anytime soon if the team continues to put together solid seasons. Heck, there’s no way of knowing he’d change things if Northwestern went 3-9. But could it hurt to find out? Could this team actually benefit from a down year in the long run if it prompted some real changes?

It’s a question that has been raised before, but as the Wildcats cruise to 7 wins this season, it’s one we won’t get the answer to.

Whether or not you’d be okay with a hypothetical 3-win season, or even support the firings of McCall, Cushing, or whoever else likely depends on your overall expectations for Northwestern football in its current state. Are you okay with being a 5 to 7 win team and occasionally bursting up to 10 wins, with the idea that recruiting and facilities improvements might make those big seasons more common in the upcoming years?

My sense, from reading the comments on this site, Twitter, and elsewhere, is that more people than not are fed up with the team’s failure to make a serious run at winning the Big Ten West. They’re frustrated with Northwestern’s inability to get over the hump against good teams, and with an offense that has been consistently mediocre for long enough that change seems like it should be an obvious decision.

That’s what conflicts me about this two-game win streak.

It’s been fun, and the rest of the season can still be a lot of fun. Let me make one thing extremely clear: I will always root for Northwestern to win. I’m excited to continue to watch this defense grow, marvel at Jackson as he hopefully makes his way into the top 10 leading rushers in NCAA history (he can pass No. 10 LaDainian Tomlinson with an average of 94 yards per game over the next seven!), and ideally see some improvement from Clayton Thorson.

But deep down, a part of me thinks it wouldn’t be the worst thing if one of these years, Northwestern bottomed out and opened up Fitzgerald’s eyes to the changes that need to be made.