In his first 15 seasons as head coach, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats were known for playing a disciplined, hard-nosed brand of football. Those well-coached teams won five bowl games, played in two Big Ten Championship games and won more than six games nine times.
In the two seasons since then, they’ve looked like an entirely different team. Northwestern has looked lost on the field in a combination of bad play-calling, poor scheming and lack of execution.
The ‘Cats have fallen into a five-game skid since their comeback victory in Dublin, which originally seemed to suggest a return to glory akin to the 2020 team, following a 3-9 season. Instead, it was a flash in the pan — a moment of hope that disappeared as quickly as it arrived.
Northwestern’s dysfunction has shown through ever since the Nebraska game. A horrendous defensive performance allowed Duke to jump out to a 21-0 lead, then mistakes piled up to lead to upsets from Southern Illinois and Miami (OH). Offensive ineptitude and an inability to capitalize on five takeaways doomed the ‘Cats in Happy Valley. Now, the 42-7 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday seemed to be a culmination of it all.
Between bad coaching and poor execution, the Wildcats were completely outmatched at Ryan Field against Wisconsin. The defense had no answers for Chimere Dike (10 catches, 185 yards, three TDs) and Braelon Allen (23 carries, 135 yards, one passing TD) and made Graham Mertz (20-for-29, 299 yds, five TDs) look like a star quarterback. The Badgers were literally toying with their opponents so much that they had their RUNNING BACK throw a touchdown and knew there was no way the Wildcats could stop it.
The offense continued its slump, totaling four punts, three turnovers, a missed field goal and a turnover on downs in its first nine drives. Not even a quarterback change could revitalize the unit, as Northwestern went on three consecutive three-and-outs upon swapping Ryan Hilinski for Brendan Sullivan. After Hilinski later left the game a second time following a hard hit, the offense finally got something going behind Sullivan’s legs, but it was too little too late.
The Wildcats’ continued struggles are hard to pin on one specific thing because there are so many problems with this team. There’s no effort to get the ball to the team’s best playmakers (see: Evan Hull only four catches, all in the second half) and there’s a lack of creativity in the playcalling. The defensive scheme clearly hasn’t worked in Jim O’Neil’s two years in Evanston and every single player in the secondary looks lost on the field. Sullivan said in the press conference that on his first three drives, he felt like a chicken running around with its head cut off (before mentioning he felt like he settled in in the second half), but the comparison could be used as a representation of the entire team, which seems to have no direction out there on the field.
So where does Northwestern go from here? The Wildcats have a week off before traveling to Maryland on October 22 and desperately need to fix something. Is it time for a coaching change? Does Fitz finally pull the plug on Mike Bajakian, O’Neil or both? If there’s a time to try a new coordinator, it’s now, as the ‘Cats are currently on a surefire trip to a 1-11 record if changes are not made. Is the Wildcat offense still manned by Hilinski if he clears concussion protocol, or does Sullivan finally get the keys to the car?
Fitzgerald reiterated postgame that he felt the team always looks great in practice every week, and the guys just need to go out there and execute on gamedays. Fitz has taken responsibility but seemed honestly unsure why his team has been unable to take their practices to the game.
“What are we doing between Thursday walking off the practice field and the game field here these last handful of weeks that’s leaving it out on Lakeside Field?” Fitzgerald said after the game. “They’ve been working really hard. I can’t look at them and say, ‘just work harder,’ it’s not that way. They’ve got to be able to execute in the moment. To me, that’s focus and discipline.”
Whatever the issues are that limit the translation of the practice field to Saturdays, the Wildcats will have to figure them out quickly. The season has now reached its midpoint, and it doesn’t appear to get any easier, with looming matchups against No. 2 Ohio State, Minnesota and Purdue. If changes are not made, Northwestern may be doomed to its third losing season in four years, with no end of the tunnel in sight.