LINCOLN — For the first time since 1992, Northwestern football has begun the season 1-4.
That’s a 27-year streak, during which they have started 1-3 four times and begun multiple runs of conference play 0-3, like they did this year. It dates all the way back to the season immediately prior to the arrival of a certain fresh-faced linebacker who would, in three short years, lead NU to a Rose Bowl berth.
In fairness, 1992 was a different kind of 1-4. The ‘Cats lost to Boston College 49-0. They fell to Indiana 28-3. The season, overall, served as one of the final iterations of an entirely separate era of Northwestern football. But NU fans haven’t really had to consider the pre-Fitz years (and the ineptitude that came with them) in a long time, other than the harmless reminiscing about the bad old days that we occasionally see in the comments section.
Now, though they have been helped by a few bad breaks and a relatively tough early schedule, this team has reconnected with their predecessors in just about the worst way possible.
Including the ‘Cats, six Power 5 squads currently sit at 1-4. Another, Chip Kelly’s UCLA, is down at 1-5. Of these bottom-of-the-barrel programs, three (the woeful Bruins, hapless Vanderbilt, and arguably the saddest football program on the planet in Rutgers) are giving up at least a whopping 36 points per game. Three more (Purdue and all their injuries, Tennessee’s lack of...anything, and a Georgia Tech team in their first year of transitioning away from the triple option) are allowing at least 29.
When opposing defensive touchdowns are removed, Northwestern’s defense, at just 15.6 ppg against (a top-15 mark in the nation), stands alone.
Officially, since the FBS went from 125 to 128 teams going into 2014, only 2015 Texas Tech and 2015 Missouri have matched this 117-spot gap— Inside NU (@insidenu) October 6, 2019
Initially, when Mike Hankwitz and Mick McCall arrived as the defensive and offensive coordinators respectively in 2008, both sides of the ball largely worked in tandem. Year after year, one phase would have a slight leg up on the other (according to SP+), with both being generally solid enough to carry the Wildcats into the postseason.
But after 2013 (incidentally, coinciding with the graduation of Kain Colter), things shifted, seemingly for good. The defense has cemented itself as among the most consistent in the country, placing in the top 40 of the metric in each of the last five seasons. Meanwhile, the gap between it and their offensive counterparts has been at least 38 spots in every one of those years.
That half-decade trend certainly does not appear to be the result of a significant talent gap, especially after the much-heralded class of 2014 delivered two four-star recruits in Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson who combined to contribute more to a struggling offense than anybody else across that span even approached, Jackson in particular.
Regardless, this season’s yawning chasm between offensive and defensive efficiency seems unprecedented. The disastrous and much-discussed conservative play-calling, crucial struggles up front, poor decision-making, and just general ineptitude from the top down have created an offense a full 13 spots worse than any other Power 5 group by SP+.
And that holds up. Even though McCall and co. went through similar struggles in a tremendously lucky, offense-averse, scheduling dream of a ten win season in 2015, Thorson’s first season, the offense remained both three spots and nearly three points better by the same metric than this year’s group.
So, understandably, calls to fire McCall have intensified. In a situation Fitzgerald has not only never faced, but has never even seen Northwestern as a program face, the Wildcats are two losses against top-20 teams away from starting the season an abysmal 1-6. And as much as this coaching staff may want to hide behind last season’s success, or the overall heights to which they have taken this program, that kind of barely-precedented failure will need to be accounted for.
“I’ve been doing this for fourteen years, and we’ve won a lot of games,” said Fitzgerald near the close of a postgame press conference in which he unsurprisingly avoided putting blame for another low-scoring loss on the offense as fully as possible. “Usually we win games like these, but we have to stop beating ourselves.”
Fans and media alike have heard this rhetoric from the Northwestern coach before. During and after each of this team’s difficult September starts in recent years, he has harped on his team’s apparent struggles to execute down the stretch and win close games.
But every other time, they turned it around. Led, usually, by the defense and a reduction in offensive mistakes, the Wildcats always start winning the close ones. It may seem slightly ridiculous to take one game into October, which created a record that is one game worse than last year’s lowest point, especially for a program outsider. But something is different in 2019.
To open Saturday’s postgame availability, Fitzgerald again continued to reuse talking points from years past. “We had every opportunity to finish the game. That’s just kind of where we are right now.”
In some ways, he’s right. But where they are right now is different from where they have been, even over the past five years of clear separation between the two phases.
This time around, the offense just keeps getting worse. And no matter how impressive the defensive effort, a fix (and a return to consistent winning) just won’t come without real, actual change on the side of the ball that has disappointed since 2014.