LINCOLN, Neb. — “Obviously not our night” were four of the first words Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke in his postgame media availability on Saturday.
To put it simply, “not our night” was about as big of an understatement as he could’ve possibly given.
Through four quarters of excruciatingly painful football, NU put up one of its most dismal performances in recent memory — particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where the ‘Cats allowed more yards to the Huskers than they have to any opponent in a single game under Pat Fitzgerald in his 16 years in charge of the program — en route to a 56-7 drubbing at Memorial Stadium.
At no point did the Wildcats ever create the illusion that they’d be able to stop their Big Ten West opponent. The Cornhuskers picked up 70 yards on the game’s first play from scrimmage, a deep but pickable throw from Adrian Martinez that found its way into the hands of Samori Toure, who toted the ball all the way to the NU five-yard line. The pass represented the third time in as many contests against Power Five opponents this year that Northwestern had allowed a gain of 50 yards or longer on its first defensive play.
Two plays later, Martinez — who would wind up with a final stat line of 259 total yards and four total touchdowns — waltzed into the end zone for the opening score.
It would take until the second quarter and UNL’s fifth drive of the game — which ended in a turnover on downs — for the ‘Cats to finally prevent Big Red from scoring seven. After that singular stop, it would take another four drives and Scott Frost’s decision to pull his offensive starters to keep the Huskers’ point total stagnant.
The defensive woes — caused by a combination of abysmal tackling, missed triple option assignments and more — weren’t unique to Saturday’s game. Instead, they were just the latest and ugliest edition of the style of play that Northwestern’s 2021 defense has embodied against legitimate competitors thus far this season.
Consider, for example, the unit’s performance under the direction of storied defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz in 2020, his final year before hanging up his whistle and calling it a career. In their run to and through the Big Ten Championship and Citrus Bowl, the Wildcats allowed their opponents averages of 341.2 yards and 15.89 points per game.
In Northwestern’s matchups against Michigan State, Duke and the Cornhuskers — the only three Power Five offenses its faced — the NU defense, now under the leadership of Jim O’Neil, has allowed more than that game-long point average in the first half alone on each occasion. As for the yards of their opponents, the ‘Cats only kept Sparty under 341 yards at the half, and Mel Tucker’s team wound up accruing 511 yards when all was said and done.
In other words, the Northwestern defense under O’Neil — whose winter hiring caused Wildcats’ fans to scratch their heads due to his questionable coaching record at the professional level — has not been even half of what it was when coached by Hankwitz.
When Fitzgerald was asked why fans should believe that these are simply growing pains under a new defensive coordinator, he said that doesn’t blame fans for being upset, but took the responsibility for this season’s defensive blunders, telling reporters that “ultimately, I’m the guy that’s responsible for the way we play” and that he has “great confidence” in NU’s defensive staff.
Fitzgerald, who has led Northwestern into a sort of football golden age in which it has won several bowl games in decades and competed for Big Ten West titles regularly, can afford to have a season like this one damage his defensive credibility and still survive until next year to tell the tale.
But, understandably, fans, students, alumni, donors, players and recruits may be far less forgiving of O’Neil, who marched into Evanston on a legacy of statistically horrendous showings as a defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers and, most recently, a stint as the coach of the 2020 Las Vegas Raiders’ defensive backs, who allowed the seventh most passing yards in the league last season.
Regardless of whether or not it holds merit, though, Fitzgerald’s attitude of personal responsibility has trickled down to his defensive players, including cornerback AJ Hampton, who focused in on the ways he could improve following the shellacking dealt by Nebraska.
“Obviously people are doing things wrong, but we’re not pointing the finger or saying, ‘Because he’s gone, we’re not playing to our standard,’” Hampton said. “No. That’s on us. Me first, I have to look myself in the eyes — when I get home — in the mirror, and I have to know what I’m gonna fix.”