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Even in close games, Northwestern still can’t get over the hump

Scratching and clawing means little without wins.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

For more than just a moment, it felt like there was a legitimately good chance the 1-7 Northwestern Wildcats, riding a cataclysmic seven-game losing streak and not having won a game on American soil since mid-October 2021, would do it.

Pat Fitzgerald’s team had Ryan Day’s No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes right where it wanted them. After two three-and-outs by C.J. Stroud’s offense, the Wildcats turned to the no-huddle and ran the ball down Jim Knowles’ defense’s throat to the tune of 61 yards on only seven carries. When Evan Hull made OSU corner J.K. Johnson miss and trotted into the end zone, fantasy had materialized into reality: somehow, the Wildcats led the second-best team in the country, 7-0.

That lead felt like it grew significantly greater when Adetomiwa Adebawore and the ‘Cats stuffed Miyan Williams on fourth-and-one from the Buckeye 40 only four possessions later. Nothing would interrupt this date with destiny… Right?

Enter a fatal flaw we’ve seen from Northwestern all year: a directionless offense that can’t execute when it matters most.

Before I actually delve into the offensive gameplan, let me address the elephant in the room: the weather.

Winds reached as high as 31 miles per hour, and there was on-and-off swirling rain. Being down on the field (pre- and post-contest) emphasized the strength of the gusts and the directional advantage teams had based on whether they were going into or away from the wind.

Fitzgerald highlighted the weather early and often in his post-game presser, explaining, “When we saw it [the weather report], we kind of knew it would be a major factor in the game. Made it really difficult to throw the ball today, no matter where it was.”

The weather was undoubtedly one of the reasons why C.J. Stroud had arguably his worst career game at the collegiate level, completing just 38% of his passes for a measly 76 yards — both of which were career lows. But to blame all of Stroud’s struggles on the ball losing flight in the air would not only mischaracterize the miscommunication between him and his receivers, but would also undermine phenomenal showings by Adebawore, Cam Mitchell and the Northwestern defense.

By that same token, only a portion of NU’s offensive woes falls on the external factors.

From the start, it was clear that Northwestern’s strategy was to pound the rock behind Peter Skoronski and an adjusted offensive line without Josh Priebe. The ‘Cats ran 59 times for 206 yards and a touchdown compared to only 17 passing attempts.

The issue was not electing to turn to the run in these circumstances, even against the 10th-best rushing defense in the country. Rather, it was the actual schematics of the ground-and-pound attack.

“I think Jake and the offensive staff did a great job putting together an outstanding plan,” Fitzgerald remarked in the Welsh-Ryan Arena media room after the game. However, those watching the game assuredly felt differently.

On Northwestern’s lone touchdown drive, the ‘Cats turned to the Wildcat formation on the first and final plays of their possession, transforming a gimmick throughout the year into a form of legitimate trickery against a stout defense. However, from that point onward, the Buckeyes began to stack the box to contain such formations.

What probably bothered Wildcat fans the most was the usage of Wildcat to begin the second half. On NU’s first five snaps of the third quarter, the play was used — all of which were runs. In fact, QB Brendan Sullivan was literally taken out of the game from the second play until the sixth of the possession. Turning to Wildcat once more on fourth-and-one, from your own 45 no less, is asking for the Buckeyes to take over on downs — which they did, promptly grabbing the lead for good.

Northwestern’s struggles in Wildcat have been well-documented this year, yet Mike Bajakian and the offensive staff insist on using the play. To use Wildcat is one thing; to play football without a quarterback on the field and do so with no sort of trick plays or motion is asinine. Wildcat doesn’t even account for the decision to run three straight times with 7:45 left, down seven, against the No. 2 team in the country.

Besides a highly questionable game plan, NU faltered on several monumental plays. Backbreaking missed opportunities include Sullivan finding Malik Washington short of the marker on fourth-and-eight from the OSU 25, the aforementioned Hull run, a late third-down drop by Genson Hooper Price and Sullivan misfiring to Donny Navarro III on fourth down from the Ohio State 36-yard line.

Overall, the tone of Saturday afternoon’s presser was much more optimistic, with Hull noting that Northwestern “could play with anybody.” At the same time, the 21-7 loss embodies a bizarre, yet unsuccessful year for the ‘Cats.

Losing by a combined 24 points to Big Ten powerhouses OSU and Penn State, regardless of climate, demonstrates a football team that can rise to the occasion. But being demolished 42-7 and 33-13 by Wisconsin and Iowa, respectively, is much more of the Mr. Hyde than the Dr. Jekyll.

There’s no doubt that Northwestern deserves praise for the effort it showcased on Saturday. But to view the game as a win misses the larger point, that the Wildcats still cannot emerge victorious in contests that they should be winning.

“Had a lot of good happen today,” Fitzgerald said. “Unfortunately, the bad is the outcome on the scoreboard.”

That quote has effectively become the chorus for NU’s 1-8 season, which has been rather topsy-turvy given eight straight defeats. Although the ‘Cats tend to play up to their opponents, there may not be much of a chance to do so in their final three games against Minnesota (6-3 but squeaked by Nebraska Saturday), Purdue (5-4) and No. 16 Illinois (which was upset by 4-5 Michigan State).

Is the purple beacon of hope shining brighter after proving that Northwestern can hang with the vaunted Buckeyes? Certainly. But until Bajakian’s offense and Jim O’Neil’s defense can regularly become in sync, something that really hasn’t happened all year, the outlook is still extraordinarily bleak. As Fitzgerald knows as well as anyone, banners are raised based on actual results — not moral outcomes.