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Where are we Wednesday: Getting back on course

Pat Fitzgerald’s program has begun to make some much-needed changes. Whether those will be enough to return the team to 2020 levels of competition remains to be seen, but the righting of the ship has begun.

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

A week after Thanksgiving, the main thing to be thankful for is this: the season is finally over. Northwestern’s putrid 1-11 record was its worst since 1989, when it failed to win even a single contest. And yet, despite all the negativity and question marks surrounding the team, there’s reason to believe that there will be sunlight on the horizon.

The 41-3 loss to Illinois (marking the second consecutive year the Illini have taken the HAT from the Wildcats) was a fitting end to what has been, for the most part, an extremely forgettable season. Illinois’ Sydney Brown, who had two defensive touchdowns during the game, was singlehandedly responsible for more points than Northwestern as a team has scored in a game since Maryland on Oct. 22. Cole Freeman threw four interceptions, Evan Hull was held to just 53 rushing yards and Northwestern went just 6-of-16 on third down. It was an ugly, ugly game and there’s no sugarcoating that.

However, it did lead to some actual change. Jim O’Neil, the leader of the 21st-worst rush defense in the country, was ousted on Monday after two years as defensive coordinator. Along with O’Neil, defensive line coach Marty Long and wide receiver coach Dennis Springer were fired, after 14 and 11 years of service, respectively. There were rumblings of O’Neil’s job being on the line as far back as mid-October, and Northwestern finally pulled the trigger just two days after the season-ending smackdown.

The firings were necessary moves, and one that many observers saw coming for a while. O’Neil’s defenses gave up over 28 points per game during both of his years at the helm, and Northwestern’s receivers have never really showed game-breaking talent under Springer. The Long firing is a bit more confusing, but given that Northwestern totaled just 18 sacks on the year, it was also understandable.

The main question now becomes who the replacements will be, both for the departed coaches and the numerous talented players who are graduating, transferring or leaving for the draft. On that note, there is hope for Northwestern, given that Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin’s former interim head coach, could potentially be looking for a job if he does not want to be the defensive coordinator under Luke Fickell. If Leonhard does not come to Evanston, then Northwestern will have a more difficult time finding a great defensive coordinator (especially with Big Ten experience), but the Ryan family’s money and desire to field a winning football team should help tremendously in finding the best candidate.

A look at recruiting also provides a lot of hope. The current class of 2023 is ranked 28th in the country, the highest ranking a recruiting class of Fitzgerald’s has ever received. Commits like Nigel Glover, Mason Robinson and Michael Kilbane should help shore up the front seven, and Ricky Ahumaraeze, who averaged 11.8 yards per catch his senior year of high school, could play a big role in the receiver’s room next year.

So yes, this season was without a doubt the worst one Pat Fitzgerald has had and one of the worst in program history. The important thing is that Fitzgerald, and the football decision-makers as a whole, realized that things could not continue if the team wants to get back to winning. Whether or not there will be more firings, it’s difficult to say (although there probably should be). However, the fact that Fitz is making real changes shows that he still wants to compete for Big Ten West titles, and he is willing to make tough moves to accomplish that. It’s still going to be a while before Northwestern gets back to the AP Top 10, but the changes made on Monday were the first big step.

Will this team be really good next year? Almost certainly not. However, they have begun taking steps to get there. So that’s where we are on this blustery Wednesday. They’re not close to the mountaintop, but they have begun the climb.