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An all-too-familiar start to the season for Northwestern football

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The team’s preparation deficit leads to plenty of the same old questions and, in all likelihood, an eventual reckoning.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Stanford John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

PALO ALTO — Blame it on the quarterbacks. The coaching. The playcalling. The injuries. The penalties. The missed tackles. Blame it on whatever you want.

The bottom line is that Northwestern did not show up ready to play to start the season.

Again.

“We have a ton of work to do as a staff,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game, and it sure looked like it. The Wildcats were beaten 17-7 by No. 25 Stanford on Saturday in a game it felt like they never had a chance of winning. The score line was close the entire way, but Northwestern played poorly from start to finish.

Where to begin? The four turnovers? The countless missed tackles? The pass interferences? Rolling out your right-handed quarterback to the left while missing your All-Big Ten left tackle when down by three points with 30 seconds left? Mistake after mistake doomed the Wildcats in a game that the Cardinal tried to hand NU on a silver platter.

The Stanford offense didn’t score a point across the entire second half, with K.J. Costello sidelined due to a forearm to the face from Earnest Brown IV. They even gift-wrapped two possessions to the Wildcats by literally dropping the ball on botched handoffs. Northwestern never fully took advantage.

“As bad as we played, we’re still there with every opportunity to win the game,” Fitz said. “We’ve just got to keep coaching the heck out of those guys.”

Before we go any further, let’s start by saying that in a vacuum, fans shouldn’t overreact too much to the fact that Northwestern lost this game. Everybody knew Stanford would be a tough team to beat on the road in Week 1, and if you told the average commenter on this site all of the injuries that NU would suffer, they would have picked the Cardinal to win by multiple scores.

The fact that the Wildcats played so terribly yet were somehow still in it until the final few plays is actually somewhat reassuring. Northwestern struggled, and deserved to lose, but had two drives in the fourth quarter that could have given them the lead nonetheless. Based on that alone, and the fact that they have next week off, there is all sorts of time for the ‘Cats to heal up and fix their problems before they get to the games they absolutely need to win.

But he most frustrating part of Saturday’s game was not the final score itself. Instead, it was the repeated sense of deja vu for Pat Fitzgerald and his team in another early-season non-conference matchup.

For the fourth year running, Northwestern appears to be headed to a shockingly sluggish start. In 2016, it was Western Michigan and Illinois State. In 2017, it was a Duke shellacking. In 2018, it was the Blue Devils (again) and those damn Zips.

And in 2019, well, it has been the same old early season struggles that we’ve seen far too often in recent years from Pat Fitzgerald’s teams.

Saturday wasn’t about the fact that the ‘Cats lost, but rather about how they lost. Once again, the program dropped an early season game not because it was outplayed, but because they repeatedly shot themselves in the foot on the field, got outcoached off of it, and just plain didn’t look ready for game action.

The missed throws and missed tackles are, if frustrating and far from ideal, understandable for a quarterback making his first career collegiate start and a defense that hasn’t tackled since December. Growing pains like these are expected in college football. With a new starter under center for the first time in four years, this was always going to be a learning opportunity.

And the truth is, Northwestern will probably bounce back from this tough season opener, at least to an extent. Like they always seem to after these sluggish starts under Pat Fitzgerald, NU will turn it up a notch once Big Ten play gets underway in a few weeks. The Wildcats have consistently shown the ability to bounce back from tough non-conference losses in the last few seasons, and there’s not many reasons to believe they won’t do the same this time around, as long as Isaiah Bowser and Trae Williams are able to return soon.

But that doesn’t excuse how wildly unprepared and confused Northwestern looked on the field against Stanford — the same way it’s looked in most other early non-conference games since September of 2016.

Where things get worrisome is in how the lack of execution and preparedness in early-season games has now made itself a recurring theme for this program. It’s all fun and games down the stretch when NU finds its stride in the thick of Big Ten play, and shows up ready for the bowl game, but does that make these consistent slow starts to the season acceptable?

Early season losses like this can’t just continue to be buried and overlooked with the mere hope that Fitz and his staff will get things turned around once the leaves finish changing colors in Evanston and September has passed.

For as good as Northwestern has been in the Big Ten the past two seasons, they’ve been equally as bad in non-conference play. Anyone who boasts about the fact that the Wildcats are 15-1 in their last 16 B1G games must also readily acknowledge the fact that this team hasn’t won a regular season non-conference game since September of 2017 against Bowling Green. And eventually, that has to start taking a toll on a team’s psyche.

The past few seasons, these early season struggles have been accompanied with the reassuring narrative that NU still has all of its goals within its control and one game won’t define the team’s season. Those are valid takes. After all, the same NU team that lost to Akron about 350 days ago ran the table and won the Big Ten West for the first time in program history just a couple of months later.

That same narrative still holds as a possibility following this weekend’s loss in Palo Alto.

A road defeat against a ranked Stanford team will not define Northwestern’s season, and it’s foolish to think that the team lost any of its full-season potential with one poor performance in Week 1. Luckily, the Wildcats get a bye week and a home matchup against UNLV to get ready to go before conference play kicks off on September 21.

But with a daunting early Big Ten schedule that sees the Wildcats go up against five currently-ranked teams in their first five conference games, the program had better hope that Saturday’s matchup was the only early-season blip they have this time around. Otherwise, the repeated non-conference woes won’t be something for fans to laugh at in November and December.

If the issues with preparation, execution, and discipline start bleeding over into the beginning of conference play, where the team will be challenged consistently, all those goals that Northwestern still controls could be gone before they even know it.