During the second episode of the heart-warming Apple TV comedy series Ted Lasso’s first season, the show’s namesake and protagonist, the fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso, calls one of his players, Sam Obisanya, over to the sidelines after he’s picked on by another player on the team and shows himself to be discouraged.
Lasso asks Obisanya, “You know what the happiest animal on Earth is?”
Obisanya shakes his head.
“It’s a goldfish,” Lasso responds. “You know why?”
“No,” replies a confused Obisanya.
“Got a 10 second memory,” Lasso says. “Be a goldfish, Sam.”
Sure, it’s a cheesy, entirely fictional comedy. Sure, it’s a different kind of football than the one Pat Fitzgerald coaches. And sure, the situations at hand are very different. But in this moment, the Northwestern Wildcats could learn a thing or two from Lasso’s advice to his player.
The season opener against Michigan State was a disaster. In what was its poorest performance since Ohio State’s 2019 rout of NU, the Northwestern defense, led by new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, looked completely discombobulated, a far cry from Mike Hankwitz’s elite unit of 2020. The offense, though productive enough to put up several big plays, shot itself in the foot with miscues and blunders at critical moments. Charlie Kuhbander missed two field goals that could’ve shifted momentum in his team’s favor.
It felt like a beatdown from Kenneth Walker III’s 75-yard touchdown run on the first snap to the final play, even if the game was within only a few scores at points. A loss of that magnitude to start a season can plague a team for the duration of the year, entering them into a lull that they never quite recover from.
You want an example? Look no further than Northwestern’s 2019 season. Sure, they didn't get blown out by Stanford, and they actually won their second game of the year against a vastly underpowered UNLV team. But by the time — guess who — Michigan State’s rout of the ‘Cats in their third game of the season was over, it wasn’t hard for anyone — the team itself included — to see where the rest of the year would lead.
NU is once again at that critical point where they can either fall into the identity of season-long strugglers or rise to the occasion and reclaim the contending standard that past teams have set.
Remember that 2019 team? Of course you do, despite your best efforts. As I said earlier, before they ever faced the Spartans, they had an opportunity to build momentum and confidence against an inferior opponent, UNLV, a week prior.
Frankly, despite defeating the Runnin’ Rebels 30-14, Northwestern never really set the tone in that game, failing to cover the point spread and going to the locker room at halftime up by only two points.
This week, the Wildcats will play an even more significantly underpowered team than UNLV was in 2019. Indiana State didn’t play at all in 2020 and opted out of the FCS’s spring season. When last we saw the Sycamores, they went 5-7 against a schedule that contained exactly one FBS opponent: the mighty Kansas Jayhawks.
The Wildcats should be able to obliterate this team. Still, NU could struggle more than most would expect against the Sycamores if they’re still bogged down in the Michigan State debacle, and, if they fail to rebound significantly this week, it could start a trend of underwhelming results as they face stiffer competition.
This is where it might be helpful for the Northwestern Wildcats to become Northwestern Goldfish ahead of this week’s contest. Being a goldfish doesn't imply that you never learn from the mistakes you’ve made, at least not in Ted Lasso. The Michigan State game left quite a bit for the ‘Cats to learn from, and, if they want to have any success against their Big Ten foes in 2021, they’ll have to fill some of the major gaps that were revealed last Friday, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
But learning from something doesn’t require you to dwell on it, and the fine line between the two can be the difference between a negative experience sparking change for better or for worse.
The ‘Cats are going to have to have to tread that line delicately, making sure to review the film scrupulously and mend the holes that allowed Sparty to put up 38 behind Walker’s 264-yard performance. But once they’ve extracted all the learnable lessons from the tape, it’s better that they live in the present and, as Fitz loves to say, control what they can control.
What the Wildcats can control is what’s ahead of them: three should-be winnable games against non-conference opponents before a Big Ten schedule that eases them into more difficult competition in the latter half of the fall. What they can’t control is the season-opening fiasco that has already come and gone, so it’s better to learn what they can and promptly forget about it.
Simply put, it’s time for the team coached by Pat Fitzgerald to take a note from another legendary coach of their time.
Be goldfish, ‘Cats.