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The worst Northwestern football season in 30 years is finally over — where does the program go from here?

Everyone expected a result akin to what took place yesterday. Where do the Wildcats go from here?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern and Massachusetts — what do you think of when you hear the names of those two schools? Some of you might have fond(?) memories of the 45-6 drubbing the ‘Cats laid out on the Minutemen back in 2019, when NU was 1-8 entering the game and was at that point considered the worst team Pat Fitzgerald had ever coached in Evanston.

Well, here’s another thing you can now associate UMass with for as long as you so choose — it is the only other school in the FBS that has gone 1-17 in its past 18 games along with Northwestern. Yes, you read that correctly. Following its dismal 41-3 defeat at the hands of rival Illinois yesterday, Northwestern is now tied with lowly UMass football as the least winningest program D-I football has witnessed in the past year-and-a-half.

That intro wasn’t about Illinois and this whole story likely won’t touch much on the HAT game at all because, as Dr. Dre once said, what’s the difference? It didn’t matter who was on the opposing sideline at Ryan Field yesterday, because everyone in the stadium knew exactly what was going to happen and had entered a state of sad acceptance about it.

Some of you could probably have guessed this one without looking it up, but this 1-17 stretch encompassing the 2022 season and the six-game skid the ‘21 season ended on is the worst stretch of football Northwestern has produced since the infamous 34-game losing streak that spanned all the way from 1979 to 1982. The only thing separating the current Wildcats from Rick Venturi level losing is a win in the Eastern Hemisphere over a Scott Frost-coached team that specialized in snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Ironically, it’s that same apocryphal state the program was in in the early ‘80s that gives Fitz job security at Northwestern both now and likely for the future. I’m not saying that’s the right decision, and maybe I just have the completely wrong read on Derrick Gragg and people in the building at NU, but it feels like that era of ‘Cats’ football created an eternal backstop in which a coach with as much success over the years as Fitz just will never be pressured. Prior to the 1995 Rose Bowl run, this is what they were dealing with.

It makes Fitz’s grandiose list of accomplishments at NU in his 17 years as head coach — 10 bowl game appearances, five bowl game victories, five finishes in the top 25 of the AP poll, two Big Ten West titles — all the more impressive.

But all that winning was supposed to change the program for good. It’s why so much money was spent on the aesthetically pleasing new practice facilities, why you have to see a Chicago Tribune article get quote tweeted into oblivion every other week when it brings up the near billion-dollar stadium that Northwestern plans to build in replacement of Ryan Field in the coming years. Programs that are “bout it” spend a lot of money on said program.

But everything else about Northwestern football from the past few years screams of a program that is “unserious” as people like to joke about on Twitter. In a time when NIL and the transfer portal are now legit tools a good football program needs to know how to use, NU is seemingly far behind. Aside from a 10-out-of-10 hit in landing Peyton Ramsey back in 2020, the transfer portal has more been used by Northwestern players to get out of Evanston than to come to it. The past two years saw the departures of some of the program’s most talented players in Brandon Joseph, Eku Leota and Kyric McGowan, while the only major-level impact an incoming transfer had on the team was Stephon Robinson Jr. stepping in as the team’s WR1 in 2021.

The other major complaint Wildcat fans have had of late is with the two men at the right hand of Pat Fitzgerald in offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. It’s a weird and unusual place for 21st century Northwestern to be in where the coordinators’ job security is a talking point, seeing as most assumed Fitz would just keep Mick McCall around forever, and the only people who ever wanted Mike Hankwitz gone were the teams that had to play against his defenses.

Asked about whether he’s considering changes that need to be made on the macro level for the program after the game, Fitz reiterated that he’ll start considering that next week, but that he understands that question, similar to what he said two weeks ago following team’s 31-3 loss to Minnesota.

(Fitz understandably cut his press conference pretty short seeing as his son was playing in a HS state championship game down in Champaign and had to book it after the game to get down there. I too would rather watch my son in a meaningful football game than talk to media members about how my team lost a game by 38 points despite having more yards from scrimmage than the opponent).

Unlike basketball, I’m not an X’s and O’s expert when it comes to football. I can’t tell you what schematic shift is needed on the field for the Wildcats. I can’t tell you whether the departures of Bajakian and O’Neil for some fresh faces would fix all of the problems. To my eye, the players on the field don’t look comparable to their opponents in the Big Ten, but I also know that I am definitely not a recruiting or talent development professional in the sport of football and cannot offer the three-step plan needed to fix that either.

What I do know is this — in the four years I’ve been an undergrad at Northwestern University, it’s had one non-dismal season of football, in what was undoubtedly the strangest football season of the modern era, and in which a lot of the success can be accredited to Northwestern trotting out a roster that started roughly 15 seniors across both sides of the ball to my best memory. The other three seasons, the Wildcats have gone 7-29, have had only three wins in conference and have suffered nine losses by a margin of four scores or greater.

There’s no reason to talk about what happened in the HAT game yesterday because none of it really mattered. It was good and important to recognize the seniors, especially impact players like Evan Hull and Adetomiwa Adebawore, but the team NU put out there very clearly stood no chance against Illinois and is in the darkest phase the program has ever been in under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Everything needs to change. Whatever you’ve been doing the past two years, you need to do the opposite, because the standard has to be somewhere above this. The program is broken right now, and even at a school with as historic football lows at Northwestern, it is not unjustified for fans of the team to angrily demand that it be fixed.