“This type of record will never happen again.”
Pat Fitzgerald confidently proclaimed this statement at the conclusion of the 2019 season, which saw Northwestern finish 3-9 with just one win and a whopping eight losses in conference play.
It was a bold claim, but considering everything he had accomplished for the program in nearly two decades as head coach, many Northwestern fans were inclined to believe him. Fitz gave them more than enough reason to in the following year, as he led Northwestern to a 7-2 record and a Big Ten West title in the 2020 COVID-modified season.
Despite losing some key producers entering 2021, fans and analysts held optimism. Many thought that a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big Ten West was the realistic outcome, including most of Inside NU’s staffers, who, in large, predicted that the ‘Cats would finish the year around .500 in conference play.
Yet, just two years after NU’s worst finish of the 21st century, that “type of record” is looking increasingly likely to happen once again.
Wisconsin’s 35-7 demolition of Northwestern on Saturday was just the latest embarrassment for the ‘Cats this season, as NU’s losing streak extended to four games and its overall record fell to 3-7.
Unlike the contest against Iowa, this game was over by halftime, with Wisconsin holding a 21-0 advantage by then. The problems, as there have been all year long, came from everywhere and presented themselves in the form of inaccurate throws, bad blocking, struggles in coverage, missed tackles, shanked kicks; the list goes on.
Once again, poor quarterback play was a driving force in the loss. Starting QB Andrew Marty threw three interceptions in the first three quarters before being benched for Ryan Hilinski, who also had a pass picked off late in the fourth. In the postgame press conference, Fitz repeated the same, cookie-cutter messages that he has been saying all season with virtually no changes to show for it.
“We’ve got to take care of the football at the quarterback position,” he told reporters. “It’s part of the expectation of the position, and we’re just not doing that clean enough right now to be able to be successful as a team.”
The four interceptions come a game after Marty threw three picks against Iowa, including one that killed the Wildcats’ last drive of the game. Protecting the ball at the quarterback position has been an issue all season, no matter who has been throwing the ball or how many times Fitz has brought it up in interviews.
When asked about the decision to bench Marty, Fitz said, “I felt like getting [Hilinski] some reps would be great and then also getting Andrew out and settling him down a little bit. He and I, I thought, had a really good talk after we put [Hilinski] back in.”
Unfortunately for Northwestern, good talks have not translated to improved quarterback play. The ineptitude at the position should remind fans of the infamous 2019 team. Like that squad, there has been a constant carousel of starters at QB so far this season, with three players — Hunter Johnson, Hilinski and Marty — all getting playing time and all failing to do much with it. As a group, they have thrown for just 12 touchdowns and an alarming 12 interceptions, averaging a measly 5.9 yards per completion.
However, one key difference is that injury has not been to blame this time around. In 2019, second-string T.J. Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the year, and then-offensive coordinator Mick McCall was subsequently blasted for his inability to trot out a Big Ten-caliber QB. Meanwhile, current offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has also struggled but without the same level of criticism. Bajakian’s three quarterbacks are all healthy, and the two that were on the team two seasons ago have not shown much — if any— signs of improvement in their time on the field this year.
Beyond the troubles at the signal caller position, the 2021 offense has been similarly inefficient and all-around bad in comparison to the 2019 squad. As it stands, the current unit is rated 116th in the FBS in ESPN’s SP+ (it was 123rd in 2019), and the offense is last in the Big Ten in points per game (it was tied for last in 2019).
Northwestern’s problems have extended beyond the offensive and simple mechanical failures. On the defensive side of the ball against the Badgers, the ‘Cats were manhandled on the ground and picked apart through the air to the tune of 497 total yards, a total that likely would have been higher had UW head coach Paul Chryst not put in the second-stringers at the start of the fourth quarter.
Braelon Allen, who rushed for 173 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday, thought that Northwestern’s effort simply waned as the game went on.
“After my first couple of carries honestly, I was like, ‘these guys aren’t trying to tackle,’” Allen said. “I think by the end of the game it was the same thing, start to finish. They weren’t really interested in it.”
No matter how this statement is interpreted, its implications are poor for Northwestern. If it means that the defense’s heart wasn’t in it, it is indicative of a major culture problem within the program. On the flip side, if Allen thinks that Northwestern’s best effort is not actually their best effort, then it goes to show how ineffective the unit really is.
As a whole, the “bend don’t break” identity of the team from prior years seems to have dissipated, and the stats back it up. The unit ranks dead last in the Big Ten in opponent third-down conversion percentage, second-to-last in yards allowed per game and is allowing touchdowns when opponents enter the red zone 64% of the time. All three numbers are worse than the corresponding ones from 2019.
Add a struggling offense and defense together, and the result is just as bad as one would expect. Outside of its win against Rutgers, Northwestern has been competitive in just one conference game this season, which was last weekend against Iowa; the ‘Cats have lost their other four Big Ten matchups by scores of 17, 49, 27 and 28. Their in-conference point differential for the year now stands at -138 (it was -132 in 2019), and the current mark will likely get lower after finishing the season against Purdue and Illinois.
There’s no doubt that Fitz is the greatest head coach that Northwestern has ever had. But that does not mean that he should not be subject to scrutiny and criticism for bad seasons. He is among the highest-paid head coaches in college football with a salary of $5.8 million, and while the national media seems to only talk about him when he succeeds, he deserves to be held accountable for Northwestern’s lows when they happen.
Heading into this week’s matchup against Purdue at Wrigley Field, Northwestern finds itself in virtually the same, dismal position it was in two years ago: a struggling team without a quarterback or a defensive identity that sits at the bottom of the conference standings. This time, however, the silver linings and long-term outlook appear to be much grimmer.
Northwestern’s leading tackler, Chris Bergin, will depart following this season after five years at NU. So too will Stephon Robinson Jr., the graduate transfer from Kansas who has led the ‘Cats in receiving this year and has been a spark plug for the offense where none else has existed. Brandon Joseph, likely the most talented player on the squad, could also forgo his remaining eligibility and declare for the NFL Draft. And that’s just to name a few of the several pieces who may suit up in purple and white for the final time in the coming weeks.
In years past, Northwestern’s roster has revealed which players might take the place of graduating standouts. 2021 has provided no such clarity. Massive questions still exist within just about every position group looking ahead to next season, and barring another Peyton Ramsey-esque transfer, the Wildcats’ plan at quarterback is the greatest mystery of them all.
And so, Fitzgerald may have actually been right at the end of that disastrous 2019 season. There still hasn’t been a year quite like it for Northwestern football.
Barring some last-second upsets, 2021 will have been worse.