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One year since the Big Ten Championship: What went wrong?

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Last Sunday, following yet another triumphant HAT victory, I received a notification on my phone telling me that I had a “memory” to view in my photo gallery. I clicked, wondering just what this picture might be, and immediately beheld a packed Lucas Oil Stadium just before kickoff of last year’s Big Ten Championship.

As a lifelong Evanston resident and longtime ‘Cats fan, I knew I would have to make the trip the day Northwestern officially made the championship game. So that’s what I did. After the ‘Cats clinched their first ever Big Ten West trophy at Iowa, my dad (shoutout to Charlie) and I bought two tickets for the game, just like many other Northwestern fans that day and beyond.

The game couldn’t come soon enough. The morning of Dec. 1, we zipped down to Indianapolis, grabbed dinner with some family friends and, eventually, made our way to Lucas Oil, just in time to see the ‘Cats get a thorough shellacking from start to finish.

Well, sort of.

There were certainly some high points in that game, ones that I even thought could carry over into this season.

Turns out, they didn’t, as the ‘Cats finished a woeful 3-9 before Mick McCall was relieved of his duties as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the first such coordinator change since 2008 under Pat Fitzgerald.

The ups and downs of these past two seasons have been nothing short of remarkable. The calls for McCall to go intensified following the devastating loss to Akron begin 2018, but that team, somewhat miraculously, turned it around and, of course, eventually made the trip to Indy. Unfortunately, 2019 was far different. In the span of one year and one week, Northwestern went from Big Ten West champions to the bottom of the standings.

So what exactly went wrong? Before we hop into the specifics, let’s first do a quick recap of the inciting event for this very story.

Ohio State 45, Northwestern 24 - Dec. 1, 2018

The scoreline of this game doesn’t paint the full picture. Sure, Northwestern struggled early, falling behind when Dwayne Haskins and Terry McLaurin, both of whom are now Washington Redskins, connected for a 16-yard touchdown pass.

But not long after, the ‘Cats followed with an incredible 77-yard touchdown run by John Moten IV that temporarily silenced the unbelievably annoying Ohio State fans behind me.

That was the only real first half highlight for Northwestern, though, as the Buckeyes led 24-7 at the half behind an extremely strong performance from Haskins.

Then, from the heavens, came the beginning of the third quarter — a seven minute joyride of pure bliss.

Northwestern received the kick to start the second half and immediately capitalized. On their opening drive, the ‘Cats drove 75 yards on just five plays, capping it with an 18-yard touchdown run by Clayton Thorson. Ohio State went three-and-out, and Northwestern put together another strong drive, this time finished by a two yard touchdown catch by Cam Green.

That might be the loudest I’ve ever cheered. That quick turnaround was a thing of beauty.

Unfortunately, the momentum just didn’t quite hold up. The Buckeyes absolutely dominated the game from that point forward, and Haskins ended up earning MVP honors after throwing for 499 yards and five touchdowns.

Even after the loss, though, hope continued to spring eternal heading into the offseason. A phenomenal comeback win coincided with Fitzgerald rebuffing any rumors about him moving to the next level, and confidence in the program seemed at an all time high.

A bounce-back to the mean is one thing, but this team swung fully in the other direction over the course of the 2019 season. What exactly has gone wrong since that magical trip to Indianapolis?

The loss of two experienced quarterbacks

It’s quite easy to relegate Thorson to the category of slightly above average Big Ten quarterbacks. He didn’t post any eye-popping statistics (throwing for 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions (!) his senior year), and even made a few boneheaded mistakes at times, but he was a rock in the Northwestern backfield and could be trusted to make plays when he needed to, for the most part.

Following Thorson’s graduation this past year, there was some uncertainty about who exactly would be under center come Week One. The hype around Hunter Johnson was through the roof, but Pat Fitzgerald was quite secretive about the QB1 discussion until Johnson was announced as the starter about 20 minutes before kickoff. Of course, Johnson struggled early on in the Stanford game, and TJ Green was soon put in, apparently according to a pregame plan.

While the sample size was certainly small, Green made some great plays against Stanford. His experience seemed to be what Northwestern needed, but on the first drive of the second half, he suffered a gruesome foot injury, ending his season.

With Green out, Northwestern turned to Johnson full time. When Johnson disappointed, the ‘Cats were forced to start Aidan Smith. Finally, when Smith was injured, NU turned to Andrew Marty to finish the year.

The graduation of Thorson and the season-ending injury to Green played a pivotal role in ensuring mediocrity under center and throughout the season. It’s just that simple.

The lack of receiving talent

QB play takes a large amount of blame for the offensive struggles, but Northwestern’s wide receiving corps can’t be let off the hook either. Here’s a look at some highlights for this particular group of pass-catchers:

  • Riley Lees led the team with 51 receptions and a mere 430 receiving yards.
  • Bennett Skowronek was injured against Michigan State in September and failed to play another down over the course of the year. It is unclear whether he will transfer or stay on for his final year of eligibility at this point.
  • The ‘Cats failed to find a good enough replacement at superback following Cameron Green’s retirement. Starter Charlie Mangieri caught just five passes for 21 yards on the entire season.
  • Highly-touted recruits Genson Hooper Price and Bryce Kirtz didn’t even see the field this .

Do some of those issues also fall on QB play? Sure. A lot of the blame also comes on the coaching staff. It’s too easy to simply blame McCall or Johnson/Smith, though. There were deeper-seeded problems here.

The Big Ten West got stronger

Last season, when the ‘Cats reached the championship, they made a remarkable run in conference play, which included seven straight conference victories. Northwestern ran the table in the West, with their only conference loss coming to East Division “powerhouse” Michigan in a game that the ‘Cats led 17-0 at one point.

The Wildcats clinched their place in the Big Ten Championship after just 10 games played. That simply didn’t happen this year. The West was much more balanced.

Wisconsin came out of the gates looking like a playoff contender. Even after being shocked by Illinois and rolled by Ohio State, they returned to form, won back The Paul Bunyan Axe, and earned their spot in the title game.

Minnesota was, without a doubt, one of the most improved teams in the country. Just three weeks ago, the Gophers looked like playoff contenders after beating Penn State, but fell off in the home stretch. Regardless, PJ Fleck and his squad went from 7-6 and beating Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl last season to 10-2 and winning seven conference games this time around.

Nebraska disappointed, as always (at least they keep selling out Lincoln Memorial).

Iowa was Iowa. They only started playing well after their season was over. All jokes aside, they put together a very quiet 9-3 campaign.

Purdue lost Rondale Moore, one of the best players in the country, and quarterback Elijah Sindelar on the same play early on and were never quite able to return to form. They dealt with injuries all year at signal caller but still pulled out a win against the ‘Cats (Aidan O’Connell is a stud).

Illinois beat Wisconsin and is bowl bound, but still couldn’t win the HAT (jokes on you, Illini fans).

With nearly every Big Ten West team taking steps forward aside from maybe Nebraska and Purdue, it’s easy to see why Northwestern fell off. Combine that with the ‘Cats’ overall regression, and it creates a recipe for disaster.

There were, of course, other reasons that Northwestern was unable to win the West again. Far too many for just one article.

Maybe, just maybe, with a new offensive coordinator (well hello, Mike Bajakian) and a chance to rebound from some injuries, the ‘Cats will bounce back.

But they’ve got a lot of work to do.