We wrote about it ad nauseam in our preseason and early season coverage. It has read along the lines of “Pat Fitzgerald’s teams have been susceptible to slow starts, and the Wildcats can’t afford that again with their difficult schedule.”
Now, fans are in the same position in which they have been for the past four years: disappointing starts, wondering if the season will be lost so soon, or if history will repeat itself and the team can flip the switch and go on an in-conference run.
This week is going to reveal a lot about this iteration of the Northwestern Wildcats. The game against Michigan State kicked off the Big Ten gauntlet that NU faces through the end of October. Sure, last year’s team looked lifeless at 1-3 heading into a tough road game, and this year can be salvaged like last year, the year before and the year before that. But there were injuries to provide excuses in 2018: Clayton Thorson was not playing at full strength coming off his ACL tear, and Jeremy Larkin had just medically retired.
Right now, it starts with the offense. Despite the breakdowns in key situations from the defense against Michigan State and three performances that have been alright but not great, Mike Hankwitz’s unit is not the reason this team is losing. We knew coming into the season there was a boom or bust potential on offense with so many new players and a new offensive line coach.
Specifically, the play calling has so far been uninspiring and the execution not up to par. Mick McCall has received his fair share of hate mail from the Wildcat faithful during his tenure, but I haven’t seen the pure volume of disdain for McCall as I did following last week’s game. Fans are so angry with the lack of creativity and ability to move the ball that (spoiler) most of the emails we have received for our mailbag at firstname.lastname@example.org have been venting about the ten-year offensive coordinator. It’s easy to overlook McCall when the offense does just enough to win — and winning cures all — but it has not done nearly enough this season.
This is a game Northwestern would love to have. Of course it is. I’d say it’s a must-win, but through the first three performances of the season — especially the clunker to MSU — there is not much inspiration to go around that makes one think this is a game this team is capable of winning. I can continue to rattle off things about how poor this start has been, and I can continue to describe how dominant Wisconsin has been, but the Wildcats will provide us with answers over the next two weeks. This is a tough game for Fitz’s guys to turn it around, and this team could play much better than last week and still lose.
This is the time of the year where the magic has happened. It’s the end of September, and Northwestern will be excited to bid farewell to a month that has not been kind to them in recent years. The ‘Cats next have a bye on October 12 — with two tough Big Ten road games before then — and if they wait until then to get their act together, their season-long goals will be long gone. But, as we’ve seen, these Fitz teams are at their best when they are counted out.