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A comprehensive look at Northwestern’s early season struggles

Wake me up when September ends.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

After a 31-10 drubbing at home at the hands of Michigan State this past weekend left them at 1-2 (0-1 B1G), Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats are in the midst of a rough start for the fourth consecutive season. Ahead of a brutal four-game stretch in Big Ten play, the ‘Cats once again have dug themselves into a hole that it will be difficult to get out of.

In his post-game press conference after the disappointing loss to the Spartans, senior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano commented on the squad’s recent proclivity for slow starts despite what has been arguably the most successful era of NU football: “It’s a new team this year, I can’t put my finger on the theme of slow starts. It’s a matter of what can we do better, we’re looking at it as a whole and game by game. It’s definitely a problem we have to fix.”

Could the ‘Cats’ early season struggles be attributed to a mental barrier? Is it on the coaching staff? Conditioning? Schedule difficulty? Inability to perform against non-conference opponents? Looking too far ahead to games against superior opponents? All of these possibilities have been bandied about in the past on this very website.

To settle things once and for all, let’s take a look at Northwestern’s starts every season in Fitz’s tenure, focusing specifically on the last four, including 2019, to see if we can find anything indicating what strange entity seems to prevent the team from winning games in August/September.

Northwestern’s Record in August/September under Fitzgerald (plus full season record)

2006: 2-3 (4-8)

2007: 2-3 (6-6)

2008: 5-0 (9-4)

2009: 2-2 (8-5)

2010: 4-0 (7-6)

2011: 2-1 (6-7)

2012: 5-0 (10-3)

2013: 4-0 (5-7)

2014: 2-2 (5-7)

2015: 4-0 (10-3)

2016: 1-3 (7-6)

2017: 2-2 (10-3)

2018: 1-3 (9-5)

2019: 1-2 (??)

Across his coaching career, Fitz’s record in August/September is 37-21, which comes to nearly a .640 winning percentage. Notable stretches include undefeated early season runs in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2015. In all but one of those years, the ‘Cats reached a bowl game, the exception being the October collapse of the 2013 team that started with a close loss to Ohio State at home.

Twice in Fitzgerald’s tenure have undefeated starts led to 10-win seasons. From a macro-level, his early-season record hasn’t been too bad, especially considering the fact that his squad has never had as much talent or fanfare as other teams in the country.

However, the last four seasons, including 2019, Northwestern has had incredible difficulty in September, having gone a woeful 5-10 in their season-opening clashes since 2016. Despite only winning a third of their games in this phase of the season, the ‘Cats have earned bowl eligibility in all four years and pulled off some impressive wins and general accomplishments to boot. What needs to happen in 2019 for the ‘Cats to regroup and pull off a similar great escape? Let’s look at the recent history to find out:

2016: 1-3 (finished 7-6 [5-4])

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

August/September wins: vs. Duke (24-13)

August/September losses: vs. Western Michigan (21-22), vs. Illinois State (7-9), vs. #20 Nebraska (13-24)

What Happened: Coming off a 10-win season where they reached as high as #12 in the polls, the ‘Cats opened the season with four straight home games. Despite a huge day from Justin Jackson, a wild Clayton Thorson goal-line fumble with 3 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter saw the ‘Cats lose to Western Michigan, a P.J. Fleck-coached team which went undefeated in regular-season play before losing to Wisconsin by a possession in the Cotton Bowl.

The next week, NU came out flat against FCS opponent Illinois State. Thorson completed only 17 out of 41 passes while Justin Jackson rushed for only 42 yards, and the Redbirds kicked a field goal as time expired to stun Northwestern. After a win over Duke, the ‘Cats once again struggled against a ranked Nebraska opponent. Road trips to Iowa City and East Lansing awaited a Wildcat team that looked largely dead in the water.

The Aftermath: NU only lost 3 more times the rest of the way, defeating both Iowa and Michigan State on the road. The ‘Cats also managed to play tOSU close at the Horseshoe, losing just 24-20, though they fell to Wisconsin by a wider margin. The ‘Cats capped the season off with a victory over #23 Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson, and the defense bounced back extremely well after the team’s disastrous start. Thorson ended up throwing 22 touchdown passes, a school record, and earned the best QB rating of his long career at Northwestern. The defense gave up 22.2 points per game, good for 24th in the FBS, and JJTBC broke out for 15 touchdowns and averaged nearly 5.1 yards per carry, including a 224 yard performance in the bowl win to end the season.

2017: 2-2 (10-3 [7-2])

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

August/September wins: vs. Nevada (31-20), vs. Bowling Green (49-7)

August/September losses: @Duke (17-41), @#10 Wisconsin (24-33)

What Happened: 2017’s edition of the Wildcats actually started at 2-2 after September’s slate of games, the best showing of any squad in this four year stretch. NU rallied to beat the Wolfpack after a 10-point halftime deficit in the season-opener behind big days from both Thorson and Jackson. Bennett Skowronek was impressive on the receiving side, catching 8 passes for 123 yards.

For a hot second, the ‘Cats had seemingly put the memories of the previous September to bed...but then they were inexplicably destroyed in Durham. The Blue Devils’ starting quarterback, Daniel Jones (that Daniel Jones) tore apart the NU secondary while David Cutcliffe’s defense picked Thorson off twice and limited Jackson to 18 rushing yards. Then, a bounce-back win at home over a Bowling Green team which ended up winning only 2 games all season long put the ‘Cats back over .500 as they headed into conference play.

NU held a 10-7 lead at Camp Randall in their Big Ten opener after two quarters. Thorson and the offense struggled to find a rhythm for a significant part of the game. A late comeback cut the Badgers’ lead to 7, but Wisconsin’s stout defense sacked Thorson in his own end zone with a minute left keeping the Wildcats to another slow start

The Aftermath: After another loss, this time a more acceptable one to #4 Penn State in Evanston, Northwestern would not lose another game in 2017, going 8-0 in a run which included 3 straight overtime victories over Iowa, Michigan State, and Nebraska. The defense improved from 2016 as it moved into the Top 20 in the nation, and, while Thorson did not surpass his totals from the previous season, his numbers remained solid.

Fitz’s squad capped off the season with a win in the Music City Bowl over Kentucky. Despite losing Jackson to the NFL Draft and graduation, a slew of returners, such as Thorson, Skowronek, and leading tackler Paddy Fisher, brought a sense of optimism to the program, especially with them having a seemingly average if not weak schedule to begin the next season.

2018: 1-3 (9-5 [8-1])

Michigan v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

August/September Wins: @Purdue (31-27)

August/September Losses: vs. Duke (7-21), vs. Akron (34-39), vs. Michigan (17-20)

What Happened: Northwestern’s first four games in 2018 parallel 2016’s slow start the best, though the ‘Cats somehow managed to add even more drama and heartbreak. After escaping West Lafayette with a win over a Purdue team which ultimately succumbed to a pretty awful mental error to close things out, Northwestern’s offense fell flat against Duke once again. Thorson, still recovering from a torn ACL from the previous season’s bowl game, rotated at the quarterback position with T.J. Green (sound familiar?).

This rotation contributed to a lack of rhythm on offense further exacerbated by the loss of Jackson to graduation and the early medical retirement of his successor at the running back position, Jeremy Larkin. The Akron Zips pulled off the shock upset in Evanston, as Thorson threw two costly interceptions and the struggling visitors created a whopping three defensive touchdowns.

The ‘Cats then somehow had Michigan on the ropes, up 17-0 in the second quarter, but, alas, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines came back in the second half to break Wildcat hearts.

The Aftermath: For Northwestern alumni and fans, the rest is history. The ‘Cats would dominate Big Ten play after the slow start as they defeated Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa to take the Big Ten West crown.

A close defeat to a talented Notre Dame team interrupted this dominance, but the ‘Cats seemingly had a game with a vaunted Ohio State squad two-and-a-half quarters into the Big Ten Championship Game. It was not meant to be that night in Indy, but a huge comeback over Utah in the Holiday Bowl capped what was ultimately an incredibly successful season for Northwestern.

History repeats itself?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Clearly the Wildcats, once again, have come out flat to begin the season, after ugly losses against Stanford and Michigan State. The brutal stretch against some of the conference’s best that awaits the purple and white, though, could dig Fitz and company into an even deeper hole come November.

The last three seasons saw elevated performances from impact players on both sides of the ball after slow starts. The ‘Cats were also able to pick off some games against favored teams, such as last year’s victory over Michigan State in East Lansing or the three-game winning streak against Iowa, thanks to execution advantages, often specifically from those veteran leaders.

To repeat the feat of surviving yet another disappointing start, a young Northwestern group will need to look to similar load-bearers in crucial spots to just get things done. If older guys like Jared Thomas, Paddy Fisher, Joe Gaziano, and Bennett Skowronek, can’t step up the way they and their former peers have in the recent past, it will be an unusually long road back for the ‘Cats.

Northwestern’s odds against Wisconsin do not look great at the moment, so (with the caveat that anything can happen in college football), assuming they drop that game, NU’s record will fall to 1-3 (0-2). But that’s a situation that this program has responded to before, and with surrounding issues that didn’t look all too different to the way they do now.

Though the Michigan State loss, a blowout, was not indicative of the way recent Wildcat teams have performed in any game during conference play, it isn’t yet time to panic. There’s still a lot of football to be played.

If the ‘Cats are 1-6 on November 2 in Bloomington, though, that might be an issue. Every other Fitzgerald team that has dealt with these struggles has turned them around almost immediately. The 2019 iteration needs to do the same, or risk falling too far behind to be able to catch up.