As the 2022 season has progressed and we’ve grown further and further from August 27 (which feels like years ago), the storylines surrounding Northwestern football have become increasingly redundant. When a team is unable to emerge from any venue in the United States with a win, it’s difficult to try to generate different angles or spin any sorts of positives.
Yet after a 31-3 drubbing in frigid Minnesota this week, the words are much clearer: until Northwestern changes something in its approach, the Wildcats do not have the combination of player talent, coaching sage or in-game synergy to win a game against a conference team, let alone any squad.
To his credit, Pat Fitzgerald did slot in sophomore Brendan Sullivan under center during Northwestern’s lifeless effort against Wisconsin. The Michigan native has played relatively well, earning a career-best 77.2 Pro Football Focus grade in Minneapolis, but still has not been “unlocked” as he should be — something that underscores coaching ineffectiveness.
In four of its last six games, NU has failed to reach even 10 points scored; even as a fan of the Steelers, that statistic is impressively bad. Further, only once in its prior 18 games has Mike Bajakian’s offense exceeded 24 points tallied.
Conditions and injuries affect offensive play, but a good coach needs to transcend uncontrollable elements to create a winning gameplan. That simply has not occurred with the Wildcats’ dreary offense, which can string together yards with its talent but has not established rhythmic, commanding series that score touchdowns.
Defensively, things have not been much better for Jim O’Neil’s unit. In each of Northwestern’s last 16 games, the opponent has scored at least 17 points; 14 of those have witnessed the opposition posit 350 or more total yards. Long gone are the days of Mike Hankwitz’s stifling, stingy unit, which surrendered 10 or fewer points three times in nine contests in 2020.
Yes, time of possession is a factor in defensive fatigue. After the game, Fitzgerald cited as much, with the clock favoring the Gophers 40:22 to 19:38. At the same time, this is the second straight year in which UMN has eclipsed 300 rushing yards and four ground touchdowns against the ‘Cats. It’s not exactly as if P.J. Fleck’s team’s approach is murky — O’Neil’s defense just has no answers.
As Northwestern has lost in seemingly every way, media sessions have become increasingly somber. That was especially the case after Saturday’s showdown, which saw Ryan Hilinski get carted off on a low hit and had Sullivan leave the game due to injury.
When speaking to the media, Malik Washington and Jeremiah Lewis emphasized celebrating NU’s seniors in its final two games. With matchups against 6-4 Purdue and 7-3 Illinois left on the docket, the festivities are looking increasingly unlikely to feature winning a football game.
What might be the even scarier epiphany for Northwestern is that it has become arguably the worst team in the Power Five. Just Saturday, historically subpar programs Arizona and Vanderbilt collected their fourth wins over ranked teams on the road in UCLA and Kentucky, respectively. Traditional “lovable losers” Kansas, Duke and UConn are now bowl-eligible, too.
The only team truly challenging the Wildcats for the mantle is Colorado, but the Buffaloes a) at least won a game in America this calendar year, b) have four conference wins in the last two seasons (to Northwestern’s two) and c) will not have allocated nearly $1 billion to football resources in the latest 10-year stretch.
When the ‘Cats hit the road, fans in enemy territory have internalized that their home side is in for a retooling, a “get right” game. That should never be the case in conference play, but especially so in the convoluted, frenetic Big Ten West.
Over the course of the last 22 games, this much is clear: the status quo is not working for Northwestern football. If wide-ranging changes do not occur in the next two games — and, much more crucially, before next year — the Wildcats will send a loud message that demoralizing losses are the expectation rather than the exception.