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ROUNDTABLE: What should the next steps be for Northwestern football?

Use the $480 million to buy a better defense, many are saying.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Things are not going well. Ask anyone from the Northwestern coaching staff, to the fans and even to the players themselves, and they’d all tell you how disappointing the ‘Cats’ 2-3 start to the 2021 season has been. Thankfully, NU was gifted a well-timed bye week following their 56-7 drubbing at the hands of Nebraska. This begs the question, though, what should Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern focus on having been given these extra seven days to prepare for both their upcoming game against Rutgers, and the rest of the season as a whole?

Daniel Olinger: Develop an offensive identity outside of “over-powering bad teams”

The porous Wildcat defense is obviously a more pressing concern, but there isn’t too much that can be done to fix that besides a full-sale change of philosophy from the staff (unlikely), or less-talented players simply being better. The offense, meanwhile, has left food on the table when it comes to self-betterment. They could have experimented against Ohio and Indiana State, testing out high-ceiling passing concepts to offset the drop in their usually stout defense, but they instead decided to run Evan Hull to no end, proving something that did not need to be proved in mowing down those opponents. If Northwestern is going to start the majority of their last seven games in a whole due to the leaky nature of the other side of the ball, than their offense needs to become more equipped at digging their way out of the chasm. The ground game isn’t going to do that, so ironing out the downfield passing attack is the way to go for the ‘Cats.

Mac Stone: Outdo 2019, if possible

This is the bar I’m setting? Seriously? Seriously. While the 2019 version of Northwestern and the 2021 version don’t even remotely resemble the same team, they’re pretty equal in terms of the product currently being put out on the field. I said in the most recent Where Are We Wednesday that there is a nonzero chance that the Wildcats go 2-10 this season. That would, of course, be worse than the horrific 3-9 record we saw in 2019. The ‘Cats need to beat that mark this year. While this isn’t necessarily a “step” that they should take rather than a goal that they should hit, if NU can get to 4-8 with two conference wins this year, then maybe they can be set up for success in 2022.

Ben Chasen: Prep for next year

Maybe this is a cop-out of an answer, but I truly think this is the smartest path forward for Northwestern given what we’ve seen in the first few games of the 2021 slate. Anyone who follows this team knows that it has had somewhat of an ebb and flow for the last decade or so, with successful campaigns interspersed among weaker ones. For purposes of its own longevity, Northwestern needs to embrace the suck and give some younger players opportunities to see game action this year so that they are more prepared for the years to come. On offense, that could mean devoting a larger snap share to guys like Anthony Tyus III, Jordan Mosley and Caleb Tiernan, and giving Carl Richardson and Brendan Sullivan some serious playing time at QB to evaluate whether they could be candidates to start in 2022. On the defensive end, Mac Uihlein, Najee Story and Jordan Butler are guys I would love to see on the field more. Let’s face it: 2021 is probably a dud for these Wildcats, but if they make it back to Indy in 2022, no one will complain about the trajectory of the program.

Didi Jin: Improve enough to beat Illinois

Barring some sudden and major improvements in play from Northwestern, it looks as though it is going to be a long season for the Wildcats. As I wrote after the Nebraska game, the ‘Cats likely will not be favorites in any of the games left on their schedule if they keep playing at the level they are now. There will almost certainly be more ugly losses ahead — particularly with opponents like No. 9 Michigan and No. 3 Iowa lying in wait — but the most pivotal game left is against Illinois. Not only is it a rivalry game, but seeing how it is Northwestern’s last game, it will show how much Pat Fitzgerald’s team has/has not improved over the course of the season.

Jacob Brown: Start Jeffery Pooler Jr., Jeremy Meiser, Xander Mueller and Jaylen Rivers
An overreactionary fan-based take would be to fire Jim O’Neil, but in an effort to maintain an ounce of journalistic integrity, I’ll go with this instead. Samdup Miller has not looked good in his return after opting out of the 2020 season, and Trevor Kent hasn’t proven to be the answe eitherr. I can throw a bunch of stats as to why the two transfers should be playing, but the eye test alone is enough to show that those two need more minutes. As far as the linebackers go ... we all see it. You want reward your veterans for sticking around, but Peter McIntyre is slow, and Chris Bergin has looked questionable at best. This team has a ton of young talent at the LB position, and it’s worth it to give them a shot.

John Olsen: Give the young guys a chance!

Even though I only expected five or six wins from this team, they’ve fallen well short of my already low bar. Looking at the remaining schedule, it’s hard to see where three more wins might come from given the plethora of problems on both sides of the ball. I propose that instead of being as concerned about the results for the rest of the year, Fitz and the rest of the coaching staff should focus more on building toward 2022. An effective strategy for accomplishing that plan would be to take advantage of the relatively recent redshirt rules, which state that a player can appear in up to four games in a season and still be allowed to keep the year of eligibility. Get LB Mac Uihlein some game time, get offensive lineman Caleb Tiernan involved and get literally anyone who will be here next year on the field because experience is invaluable. I’m not saying pull a UConn and have half of the two-deep be filled with freshmen, but the older players haven’t performed to the level anyone expected or hoped for this season, so how could the younger guys be any worse?

Halliday Mafrige: Work on defending the run

Oof. That’s probably the best description as to what happened last week against Nebraska for Northwestern. It was quite the game for the ‘Huskers and their offensive attack, one that I’m sure no NU fan, coach or player wants to repeat. While Rutgers suffered a similar beating at the hands of Ohio State, it’s worth noting the strengths of this RU team. Quarterback Noah Vedral is a powerful runner, and along with running back Isaiah Pacheco, they were almost able to take down the now-No. 9 Michigan Wolverines. Long story short, Rutgers has some serious punching power a strong running game. The ‘Cats need to focus on their running defense as that is Rutgers’ preferred method of attack. People had been referring to this upcoming game as a “cupcake” game earlier in the season … maybe for the 2020 ‘Cats it would be, but clearly not for the team that has played these first five weeks.

Michael Barthelemy: Play Hilinski and don’t look back

2021 is likely over for the ‘Cats. Unless there is some miracle stretch that sees NU win over a team like Iowa or Michigan, then this season will end up much like 2019. While I think it’s dangerous to play too many young guys at risk of looking too much like UConn football, there is no reason for Fitz to look in the direction of any QB not named Ryan Hilinski. After this season he will have two more seasons in Evanston, so why not let him continue to grow with his receivers and fit into the system? While it may be a sloppy mess this year, college football is a game of dramatic changes each season. If Fitz and Mike Bajakian draw up an offensive playbook to maximize Hilinski’s strengths, making sure that is implemented should be the team’s top priority. And, I repeat, stick with the system. If Northwestern goes down by a million, don’t avert to an air raid offense to climb from 28 down. Get in some reps and decide what the offense will look like next year.

Bradley Locker: Play competitively, at least in winnable games

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this Northwestern team is not going to make the College Football Playoff, win the Big Ten or likely even be bowl-eligible. At this rate, a successful end of the season would be staying afloat and finishing at or around .500 in its seven games left, especially given the historically bad nature of Jim O’Neil’s defense in his first year as DC. This past Saturday in Lincoln truly should have been a reality check for Pat Fitzgerald, and knowing his unmatched will to win and represent all the glory that Northwestern stands for, the outcome is eating him alive. Yes, this Northwestern offense is somewhat ragtag under Ryan Hilinski, but NU has games left against teams that aren’t powerhouses — that starts next Saturday against Rutgers. Fitzgerald’s squad doesn’t stand much of a chance against Michigan or Iowa, and that’s to be expected. However, the ‘Cats have a golden opportunity to generate momentum going into the fresh slate of next season by playing closely against the Scarlet Nights, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois — and, at the very least, should ensure fans donning purple continue to pack Ryan Field.