“We’re just trying to go 1-0 every week.”
This line — and any variation of it you can think of — has become a type of mantra for Northwestern football in Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. The sentence is simple yet powerful, optimistic, but perhaps naive. The overarching message: in the face of adversity, keep your head up, eyes on the task at hand, and never look back.
Fitzgerald became notorious at press conferences throughout the latter half of the 2016 season for brushing off questions about the team’s struggles early in the campaign. When faced with the task of evaluating how far his team had come since starting 1-3 (with a particularly repugnant loss to Illinois State sprinkled in), Northwestern’s head coach chose to focus only on the present, preaching to his players to never become too fixated on the past, lest your focus on the immediate future be clouded.
But often the past is exactly where one should turn for lessons on how to proceed and how to grow, especially in football, where technical strategy is so integral to team success. As the old adage says, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Shoutout to Winston Churchill.
To be fair, though, it’s no surprise Fitzgerald had little interest in dwelling on past errors (at least not in the public eye) amidst the rigors of a 13-game season. But with a winter’s worth of perspective and a bowl victory in hand, Northwestern football seems finally ready to address the dumpster fire that was September 2016.
“I think the guys are pretty salty with the way we played early last year,” Fitzgerald said after being asked what the team’s general mood was in an offseason coming off a bowl win. “We put ourselves in a hole, because of us.”
Fitzgerald went on to emphasize that he didn’t want to discredit the play of opposing teams during that stretch, but it’s telling that the above words were the first to leave his mouth upon being posed that question. And he certainly has a point: Northwestern was favored in the three of its four opening games last year and only pulled out one. The team recovered — albeit “too slow,” as Fitzgerald said — but the consequences of that start echoed throughout Northwestern’s 2016 campaign.
So, what brought this team from 10 regular season wins in 2015 to six in 2016? Injuries transformed the secondary from elite to a carousel of unproven talent. The offensive line struggled. Jack Mitchell missed some kicks. But, more than all that, there was an attitude about the team that held it back from its true potential, at least according to a few players.
“Coming off a ten-win season I felt like we were OK with that,” Tyler Lancaster said. “Then we were gliding through thinking that, ‘oh we’re good, we’re a ten-win team’ and then obviously showing up next season, that wasn’t the case.”
Complacency is often the downfall of teams on the rise and Northwestern stagnated in a number of areas last season. But there were bright spots, and the team seems determined to use these as a springboard to success in 2017. Comeback victories over Iowa and Michigan State come to mind. Going from 1-3 to 7-6 and picking up the program’s third ever bowl win does too. Even moral victories, such as the team’s hard-fought loss to Ohio State in Columbus, carry weight.
“We saw going into Ohio State that we can play with the best of them... And we also saw that we lost some games we shouldn’t have,” Clayton Thorson said.
“We gotta play at a high level every week because we’re capable of it, not because we know we have to because of the opponent,” Thorson said. “We gotta do it because we know we’re capable of it.”
Pride. As much a staple of a Pat Fitzgerald-coached football team as grit and forward-thinking. Contentedness, on the other hand, explicitly isn’t, and that’s the attitude this team played with in September 2016. Players and coaches alike are determined to not let contentedness define their 2017 season.
“Now we’re pushing it like it’s 0-0 and we want to go undefeated, and we’ve been working our butts off accordingly,” Lancaster said with a grin.
“Urgency is high... We know what we need to do to get to that point, but we gotta keep doing it,” Thorson said.
“I think we’re much further ahead mentally, attitude wise, than we were a year ago this time,” Fitzgerald noted.
On paper, the beginning of Northwestern’s 2017 schedule appears even more manageable than last year’s non-conference slate. The Wildcats open at home against the Nevada Wolfpack, statistically the FBS’ fifth-worst team last season, ranking 103rd in Off. S&P+ and 124th in Def. S&P+. Then comes a trip to Duke (Northwestern has beaten the Blue Devils two years in a row), and then back home for Bowling Green, a team that gave up 77 points twice in 2016 en route to a 4-8 record.
It goes without saying that those are three extraordinarily winnable games for Northwestern, and the team will probably need all three to stay on track and gain confidence with tough tests against Wisconsin and Penn State looming to open conference play.
“We don’t walk on water, any team any given Saturday can win,” Thorson said.
He’s right. ‘Any team, any given Saturday can win’. Not too long ago, this sentiment would have been seen as solace for Northwestern, encouragement for a perpetual underdog. But this is now a program that, even after regressing slightly last year, carries expectations into 2017. A winning season. A bowl berth and a bowl title. The Wildcat faithful have had a taste of greater things than moral victories, and the onus now falls on this team to deliver.
Northwestern will simply have to take care of its September business in order for that to happen.