Imagine a motorboat slowly cruising across the open ocean. It hits a few waves here and there, but the ride is otherwise smooth. Suddenly, the engine begins to sputter, then dies entirely.
That’s the shape that Wildcat football, and especially their offense, is in after Friday night’s decimation. To be fair, nearly everyone expected some sort of blowout, but of that caliber? Tough to say.
Northwestern is now 1-5, holding that record for the first time since 1992, where, coincidentally, their fifth loss also came in a blowout to the Buckeyes. The ‘Cats finished that season 3-8, missing a bowl by a considerable margin. It appears this year’s team may meet the same fate.
With the defeat, Northwestern harkened back to the years where zero, one, two, and three-win seasons were run-of-the-mill. It was the worst overall loss (by point differential) that the team has suffered since 2008, but it was the worst home loss since Illinois issued a 63-14 beatdown to cap off the last winless season NU fans had to suffer through. That took place exactly 30 years ago.
If the level of play displayed by the ‘Cats on Friday night is any indication of what may be coming to finish the season, things could get worse before they get better.
The remaining Northwestern schedule currently contains only two ranked opponent in No. 23 Iowa, who rolls into town next week, and no. 20 Minnesota. It’s fair to say that the schedule does get easier after Ohio State, aside, perhaps, from the Hawkeyes and Golden Gophers.
The Wildcats threw the ball for a measly 42 yards against the Buckeyes, the fewest they’ve put up in a game since 2003. Iowa’s defense currently ranks seventh in the country in passing yards allowed, allowing just 160 per game (for comparison, Ohio State ranks third, giving up 152 per game).
Although crazy things can and have happened in recent years within the rivalry, that matchup specifically seems to portend another loss, which would drop NU to a ghastly 1-6. Regardless of the way the schedule runs out after that, six losses in seven games to start the season would be demoralizing for fans and players alike.
Unfortunately for Pat Fitzgerald, the stats he so often derides are beginning to speak for themselves.
Prior to the Ohio State game, Northwestern’s defense was giving up just 15.6 PPG, which was top-15 in the country. Even after the blowout is taken into account, they are still holding opponents to 21.7 points per game on average, which is pretty impressive. While the defense was, at least partially, exposed Friday night by a talented Ohio State team, they’ve been fantastic for most of the year. The problems lie elsewhere, and that’s no secret.
Let’s shift the focus to the other side of the ball. The ‘Cats failed to score a touchdown on Friday, securing their only points the second time they touched the ball on a nine play, 44-yard drive capped off by a 33-yard FG from Charlie Kuhbander.
On the season, Northwestern’s offense has scored just seven touchdowns, 129th in the FBS for that category. They average just 3.7 yards per play, which is dead last, 130th out of 130. Against Power 5 opponents, the Wildcats are putting up a measly eight points per game. They are 126th in completion percentage, 126th in interception percentage, tied for last in yards per completion, and dead last in team passer rating.
Perhaps most notably, the team is averaging 4.1 yards per pass attempt. That number is not only also dead last in the nation, but it is a whopping 0.7 yards behind second-to-last UTSA. For comparison, that gap is the same as the one between 124th-ranked Buffalo and 100th-ranked Oregon State. Only 2008 Army has had a worse season-long YPA since 2003, which is as far back as Team Rankings’ stats go. In the past 11 years, only two other teams have even been below 4.5.
This passing offense is almost certainly, at this point, the worst we’ve seen in Evanston this century. But Mick McCall and co. are breaking new ground nationally in a negative direction.
Based on the stats we’ve compiled above (along with the eye test) this group is competing for the crown of worst passing offense of the decade at the FBS level of college football.
“We’ve got to get better fundamentally,” Fitzgerald said regarding his team’s mistakes in the postgame press conference following the blowout to OSU. “We can’t have self-inflicted wounds.”
Ever since Fitzgerald stepped foot in Evanston, these words (or similar phrases with the same sentiment) have been commonplace following tough losses. Over the past few years, Northwestern has prided itself on winning close games, even pulling out three overtime victories in 2017 vs. Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska. Typically, when NU drops a close game, on the other hand, Fitzgerald blames these so-called “self-inflicted wounds,” which is certainly understandable.
But it just doesn’t make sense to blame it on fundamentals when your defense gives up 52 and your offense fails to score more than three, even against one of the best teams in the country. After a record-setting loss, it’s fair to say that there are more pressing matters at hand. On the offensive side of the ball, something is very wrong with this football team, and nearly everyone knows it.
Later on in the press conference, Fitzgerald began to look forward, commenting on the remainder of the season using another common phrase heard around college football. “There’s a lot of ball left. There’s a lot of season left. Let’s get our seniors to a bowl game.”
If, hypothetically, Northwestern were to right the ship and make a bowl game, the question becomes whether or not fans would see the change they’ve been calling for. If the offense were to suddenly improve, would the higher ups forgive the previous inept play calling and poor QB play? The answer is yes. But will Northwestern get to that point? Most likely not.
With the defense showing some flaws vs. the Buckeyes, and the offense hitting rock bottom, the motorboat that is Northwestern football has run out of gas. They’re stranded, dead in the water, and rescue won’t come unless legitimate change is made on the side of the ball that just seems to constantly disappoint.