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Northwestern has one week to prove the program is salvageable

Is there any hope?

Ohio State v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The day after Northwestern fell 47-14 to Illinois last season, snapping the Wildcats’ six-game win streak over their rivals, Inside NU’s own Daniel Olinger wrote, “Bad seasons will happen, but they shouldn’t happen like this.

The column came on the heels of Northwestern’s second 3-9 season in three years, and discussed the frustration of Wildcat fans as the team appeared to enter an offseason where there were more questions than answers. For the first time in a long time, the Northwestern fanbase lacked hope as the season came to a close.

“Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald has also been awful before, but even in those years there was an olive branch of hope and joy to grab onto,” Olinger wrote. “The 4-8 squad of 2006 got to close the season winning two out of three and upsetting hated rivals in Illinois and Iowa. The consecutive 5-7 seasons of ‘13 and ‘14 at least gave NU fans reason to unleash evil laughs as the team seemingly lost every close game and fell victim to too many bad breaks to count. Even 2019, the year we’ve referenced so often on this site, closed with the Marty Massacre of an already bowl-eligible Illinois, reminding Northwestern fans that this program was far from a pushover.”

Olinger then proceeded to describe how the 2021 season was anything except those listed above, and a year later, the 2022 team echoes a similar feeling. There’s little hope around Northwestern as the fans not only struggle with a miserable season this year, but also what appears to be just as bad of a year next year.

One can only predict the exodus of talent that will leave Evanston this offseason. Last year’s departure of All-American Brandon Joseph to Notre Dame opened the eyes of many that this was something that could happen, and would happen, if the team did not get any better. We’ve already seen the decommitments start, as the Wildcats’ second-highest rated prospect, defensive lineman Ashton Porter, announced he would be reopening his recruitment after the ‘Cats’ 42-7 shellacking at the hands of Wisconsin.

Who comes next? Is it someone from the talented running back trio of Evan Hull, Cam Porter and Anthony Tyus II? Could it be Cameron Mitchell, who has continued to improve his draft stock for next season after a strong run this year? Maybe it’s even Peter Skoronski, who, despite being projected as a top draft pick this April, could opt to stay another year in college and finish his degree.

So where does Northwestern go from here? It’s almost a certainty that the coordinators are gone, given Pat Fitzgerald’s comments last week about making changes. However, does that “solve” anything? Will all of Northwestern’s problems go away because of a bad scheme and poor playcalling? There’s no transfer quarterback that will fix the Wildcats’ woes like in 2020 (or even like some thought in 2021), and frankly, I’m not sure there’s one single plug that will clog the leaks in the NU ship.

The first step to fixing Northwestern starts not in the offseason, but on Saturday. Even if they don’t win, the Wildcats have to show fight, something that hasn’t happened in countless matches this season. Saturday’s loss to Purdue showed heart, as the ‘Cats performed about as well as expected with third-string/fourth-string quarterback Cole Freeman. The defense certainly shored up by only allowing three second-half points, but it’s not enough to say that Northwestern is “almost competitive.” The ‘Cats should be able to compete to win against any Big Ten team on any given Saturday, not just lose by less.

Fitzgerald has reiterated throughout the season that he wants to “get the team older.” However, it doesn’t matter if the team is older next season if the starting talent isn’t better than the talent behind it. Otherwise, he’ll continue to waste skill sitting on the bench while it waits to transfer at the end of the season.

Fitz needs to take the time and evaluate the talent he has in the building, minding nothing to age or experience. We’ve seen it in increments throughout the season — Devin Turner has played a good amount as a DB, Mac Uihlein played well before his ejection in relief of an injured Bryce Gallagher and Joseph Himon II looked smooth in a few plays against Purdue — but not on the scale of what is necessary to compete now and for the future.

If Northwestern can play Illinois closely and nearly win, not lose by less, Fitzgerald will prove that the program is not just trending in a downward spiral with no end in sight, but that he has a vision for the future of how to escape the hellish paradigm that the Wildcats have fallen into. He’ll show that the team is not going to lay down and die after its worst season since 1989, but actually dedicate itself to fixing the worst string of years since the dark ages.