After blowing out Ohio, Northwestern went on the road this weekend to take on Scott Frost and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Like its previous two games against Power Five opponents, the ‘Cats fell into a quick hole early and couldn’t dig themselves out. This time, though, the ‘Cats did not even put up a fight, falling down by 28 heading into halftime, and failing to score in the second half entirely. Here are five things we learned from an embarrassing 60 minutes in Lincoln.
The defense is as bad as it has ever been under Pat Fitzgerald
This is Pat Fitzgerald’s 16th season as the head coach for the Northwestern football team. It has been a long period of time that has led fans of different generations to some epic highs and some demoralizing lows. Saturday’s contest against Nebraska might be one of — if not the — biggest low in Fitzgerald’s tenure.
In the beloved head coach’s 192nd game, Northwestern gave up more yards than it ever has under his tutelage. To rub salt in the wound, the record-setting mark that eventually totaled 657 yards was set by Nebraska’s second-team offense, as the game had already gotten so out of hand that Scott Frost felt no fear of a comeback. The yards came mostly on the ground (the ‘Cats gave up 427 rushing yards), but the air attack was just as lethal to Northwestern’s porous defense. Unlike the game against Duke, Jim O’ Neil’s unit simply could not adjust to the Cornhusker offense, leading to the second largest loss by point margin in Fitz’s time at the helm in Evanston.
Northwestern might not win any conference games this year
Entering the season, Northwestern’s over/under win total stood at 6.5. Given its success last year and its weak strength of schedule, the figure seemed reasonable. But now, a point in which some analysts and fans thought that the ‘Cats could be 5-0, Northwestern sits at a measly 2-3 with only conference opponents left to play. Despite a relatively weak strength of schedule compared to other Big Ten teams, it is very likely that NU will not be favored to win any of their remaining games.
Looking ahead, there’s no reason to think that teams like No. 9 Michigan or No. 3 Iowa won’t put up Nebraska-like numbers against Northwestern’s defense. Even squads that have had some struggles, like Rutgers or Minnesota, have at least shown an ability to compete with Big Ten competition. Northwestern, on the other hand, is now 0-2 in conference play, having lost both games by a total of 66 points.
While it might have been reasonable to think that the defense would begin to improve after the first week or two, to expect the unit to suddenly make drastic improvements is nearly impossible. Couple that with an offense that seems to be equally as bad, and a 2-10 final record is very unfortunately in the cards.
The future is not as bright as many thought
With two Big Ten West titles in three years, recruiting on the uptick and two first round draft picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, things were looking up in Evanston. 2021 seemed as though it could finally be the year in which Northwestern established itself as a perennial powerhouse and one of the best teams in the country. Yet, just five games into the season, all of the football-related alarms are sounding off at max volume. Not only has Northwestern failed to meet expectations on a quality of play basis, but its underclassmen and first-time starters have largely been struggling and have been unable to produce any positive results.
The two best players against Nebraska were Stephon Robinson Jr. and Andrew Clair, both of whom are graduate seniors who are playing their final year of college football after transferring from lower tier programs (yes, Kansas is lower tier). Outside of their performances, there was not much praise to go around. Northwestern has always been a team that has relied on experienced upperclassmen to be successful, something that lends itself to seasons like this one which feature a lot of “growing pains.” While the hope was that improved recruiting and player development would lead to smoother transitions in between players’ graduations, it does not seem as though that narrative is changing anytime soon.
The upcoming bye week could not come at a better time
Whatever the opposite of momentum is, Northwestern currently has it. Losing by 49 points to an in-conference foe is as bad as it gets in college football, and both the players and coaches will benefit from time off. There are no easy games from here on out, and for the ‘Cats to not have to gameplan around a team this week should take some of the stress off of them. The bye week likely won’t lead to the team drastically improving, but it is important to remember that players still are college students who have a million other things to worry about. A little bit of time away from the sport to wash away the stench of Lincoln and focus on general team improvement can’t hurt, especially for such a young squad.
Jim O’ Neil needs to be on the hot seat
No matter what’s going on internally within the program, there needs to be a level of blame placed on Jim O’Neil. As mentioned before, Nebraska put up record numbers against his defense, numbers that were never put up when Mike Hankwitz was Northwestern’s DC (a job he held for 13 seasons). Defensive struggles might be more understandable if the unit had also performed poorly last year, but going from the best defense to the country to being humiliated by Nebraska in under a year’s time is not a turnaround that should be tolerated in any Big Ten football program. There needs to be accountability for what’s gone so drastically wrong so far this season.