clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For Northwestern, development must supersede results in the second half of 2022

Something has to be achieved in these last five games.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Northwestern at Maryland Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Maryland announced that star quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa would not be suiting up against Northwestern, almost nobody within either fan sphere expected a drastically different result in Saturday’s game. Sure, Billy Edwards Jr. is no Tagovailoa, but the issue rested precisely with the team in purple and white.

No matter who Maryland played under center yesterday, Northwestern proved this much: it’s a team that just cannot step up and make key plays when it needs to most.

Sure, the final score of 31-24 reflects a close defeat — marking the fifth of NU’s six losses to come within 10 points. At the same time, the mark doesn’t tell the full story.

With Edwards and the Maryland offense sputtering, the Wildcats took advantage by jumping to a 17-7 lead. Even though the Terrapins collected three more points before halftime, the ability of Jim O’Neil’s defense to permit just a field goal off of an 88-yard drive was impressive.

Then, the second half arrived — as did the much-maligned Wildcats we’ve seen over the last two seasons. Brendan Sullivan made a key mistake by throwing an interception on Northwestern’s first drive of the half; the Terps got right to work, knotting the score on the ground via Edwards Jr. and Roman Hemby.

That possession encapsulated just how greatly UMD seized momentum. The Terrapins’ second-half drives ended in a touchdown, touchdown, missed field goal, touchdown and turnover on downs (to end the game). The ‘Cats simply could not maintain sound coverage, disciplined run play or fundamental tackling when they needed to, prompting a 21-point surge by the home side.

If anything, the box score is a mirage of the fact that this game should not have been very close. Yes, Sullivan and the NU offense marched down the field to tie the game via Andrew Clair’s heavy lifting. But Edwards missed a number of wide-open playmakers, and it seemed as if Mike Locksley’s group could have waltzed to victory.

“We’ve had every opportunity to win the game,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the defeat. “Our mistakes have led, unfortunately, to us not being successful.”

Those words from Fitzgerald are becoming the common refrain to Northwestern’s 2022 season — the chorus of a solemn song with little light at the end of the tunnel. Even when the Wildcats battle, show any signs of life, the optimism comes crashing down in the blink of an eye.

The Terrapins, situated at 6-2, have emerged as a solid team within not just the Big Ten, but also the country. The fact that Northwestern “hung” with a potent opponent may be promising, but the team’s schedule gets that much tougher from here.

In its last five contests, Northwestern plays Iowa on the road, welcomes No. 2 Ohio State at home, faces Minnesota and Purdue as a visitor and hosts No. 18 Illinois at Ryan Field. To win one of those games would be a fairly welcome surprise.

While Fitzgerald mentioned his expectation is to “go 1-0 every week” during last Monday’s presser, that simply isn’t realistic with this year’s team and assembled coaching staff. The white flag has effectively been waved.

Instead of obsessing over outcomes, what should be done is identify promising pieces for 2023 and beyond. Starting Sullivan was very much a step in that direction: while the sophomore made two poor decisions on picks, his athleticism and arm strength were on display. The Michigan native should certainly remain Fitzgerald’s signal-caller for the rest of 2022, if for nothing more than to see what NU has under center entering next season.

Likewise, the ‘Cats have begun to play first-years like Devin Turner and Austin Firestone, both of whom made splash plays in College Park. Providing more inexperienced athletes with a chance to see the field against top-tier competition can only help identify areas of strength and weakness for the future. Why not let youngsters like Mac Uihlein, Anto Saka and Chris Petrucci get their collegiate forays?

The odds that Northwestern wins more than one game this campaign are quite slim; to go 5-0 and squeak into bowl game eligibility is not even in the conversation. Disregarding wins and losses (to some extent), NU should provide opportunities for young, gritty Wildcats to make their auditions for next year and the future. After all, how much is there to lose?