Northwestern put up a fight against Wisconsin. This much cannot be denied. The offensive line was just plain bad, Clayton Thorson did not have his best game, Justin Jackson was limited, the defense gave up two huge plays, and yet Northwestern still kept it close against a top-10 team. But like many underdogs, they just ran out of gas and chances.
Every year, after a disappointing Northwestern loss to a top Big Ten program, whether it be Ohio State, Wisconsin, or Michigan, we have this same discussion. Is putting up a fight enough? Have we become accustomed to mediocrity? Is it enough to put up a fight against the great teams, beat most of the teams they are supposed to beat, go to a bowl game almost every year and have a few outliers in either direction? (Northwestern’s records over the last 10 years: 6-6, 9-4, 8-5, 7-6, 6-7, 10-3, 5-7, 5-7, 10-3, 7-6)
At least part of the fanbase doesn’t believe that it is. Some of our commenters (all of whom are smart, handsome, and have great taste in sports blogs) claim that Pat Fitzgerald’s stated goal of winning championships means consistently above-average football isn’t good enough. Others think that consistently decent with no whiffs of scandal and a chance at overachieving is good enough. Still others (probably most) are somewhere in the middle.
Let’s look at Northwestern’s conference compatriots. You have programs like Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, and Minnesota, which one can argue that NU has been objectively better than. You’ve got the powerhouses of the conference. But you also have schools like Iowa and Michigan State, schools with longtime head coaches who have, you know, actually done something. They’ve gone to Big Ten Championship games. They’ve gone to Rose Bowls and the Playoff. Northwestern hasn’t even come close to that. Is Northwestern ever going to break into that slightly better tier?
I think that Northwestern can and must be able to win a Big Ten West title every 4 years. This goal seems ambitious, but without a severe recruiting disadvantage against any other school in the division, a Northwestern program that has been consistently above average should have the talent and the coaching to take them to the top once per cycle of players. Right now, Wildcat football seems stuck in neutral. Despite 2015 signifying a great year for the program, they were unable to compete with the two top-15 teams that they matched up with in Big Ten play. Last year they turned it on at the end, but early struggles were too much to overcome without a signature win against a great team. With last Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin, a pattern has begun to emerge.
If Northwestern finishes this year still unable to get over the hump, Pat Fitzgerald must take a hard look at his program. Anybody who has watched the team over the past 3 years knows that specific position groups have dragged the program down at key moments (read: offensive line), and it’s time for coaching changes to be made if Northwestern is going to get to the next level as a program.
On Monday, Fitzgerald was asked about the offensive line. “I'm sure it was well documented [as] all the O-line's fault, which, that's good, 'cause they need it,” he said. “You can't have eight sacks and not have the O-line get beat up for it. We must play better at right tackle...we're gonna keep coaching the heck out of 'em, and they're gonna get better.”
The story is the same every year after the offensive line struggles in big games. I’m not blaming the players, but when the tackles struggle to protect the quarterback in important game after important game, something needs to be changed. And those issues are only exacerbated by a newfound inability to create push for the running game (and, unfortunately, a banged up Justin Jackson). The bottom line is, for Northwestern to become the top-tier team that the potential new facilities and team talent suggest they can be, unheard-of coaching stability needs to become a thing of the past, especially for those in charge of struggling units.
I don’t buy into the idea that Northwestern must compete for championships every year. But with as much talent on the roster over the last three years as the program has ever seen, it’s time for Northwestern to take the leap. And you can’t take a leap without first making some changes.