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For Northwestern football, the only consistency is inconsistency

Where do the ‘Cats go from here?

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

September is a lot of things. It’s the smell of new school supplies, seven-layer dip on Sundays and the first gusts of cool fall air.

For Northwestern fans the last couple of years, September is frustration. It’s screaming at the TV and holding on to hope until it seems there isn’t any left. It’s losing to a winless FCS opponent at home and looking to parallels from seasons past for comfort.

The Wildcats have won only three games in September since 2018. They’ve lost nine. Among those nine are three losses to Duke, one to Akron and one to SIU. Don’t get me wrong, it does bring a bit of comfort in recognizing NU lost to both Duke and Akron in its 2018 Big Ten West title run. However, what it doesn’t bring is confidence that this team can do the same.

To put it simply, there are almost never excuses when you are your own worst enemy. Northwestern shot itself in the foot too many times yesterday, and it was outplayed and outcoached in the process.

“We didn’t win because we lost the turnover battle by three, and fourth downs we don’t pick up,” Fitz said in the postgame presser. “Then [we’re] giving up explosive plays with eye discipline out of some exotic formations that Coach [Nick] Hill did a good job with.”

There aren’t excuses for four turnovers — in yesterday’s case back-to-back interceptions and back-to-back fumbles. Fitz said they work on mitigating those mistakes every day, ball security on offense and turnover circuits defensively. He said it last week, too, when the ‘Cats gave up three turnovers to Duke. And then they went and gave up even more against SIU.

And sure, the lack of Coco Azema, Cam Mitchell and A.J. Hampton Jr. in the secondary might explain bits and pieces of why Nic Baker and the Salukis managed 261 passing yards and three passing touchdowns yesterday. But “exotic formations” cannot be the reason for the failure of Jim O’Neil’s defense in controlling the air.

“We work our tails off to give our guys the best plan so we can go out and be successful,” he said. “As coaches, it starts with us.”

SIU’s first two scores came off almost the same passing play up the middle, save for the side the receiver started on. Both times, a hole was left wide open in the middle of the field for the catch with ample space for the player to outrun the linebackers in coverage who were left with virtually no chance. Maybe it was an “exotic” play, but allowing the Salukis to tie the score before halftime on two nearly identical plays falls as much, if not more, on O’Neil and his staff to make proper adjustments as it does on the players themselves.

On offense, Ryan Hilinski didn’t perform as expected either. He overthrew Donny Navarro twice on long, potentially scoring routes up the right sideline. He threw two interceptions, one off a tip and one straight to a defender. But he also completed screen passes that rarely moved the offense up the field and oftentimes the separation from receivers wasn't there for him to slot it in. Hilinski has talent around him — Evan Hull, Cam Porter, Peter Skoronski; the list could go on. But a lack of talent wasn’t Northwestern’s issue against an FCS opponent that had previously recorded two losses to Incarnate Word and Southeast Missouri State.

As Fitz himself said, it starts with the coaches. It starts with not giving up more turnovers a week after turnovers were the reason for a loss. It starts with in-game adjustments that truly put players in the best position to make a play. It starts with harvesting the energy and confidence brought by a double-comeback win in Dublin, bringing it back to Evanston and sustaining it the entire season.

So what’s gotta give? The promises will soon ring hollow in the absence of any visible improvement, especially with another seemingly lower-rung opponent arriving next week.

Perhaps the ‘Cats will actually turn it around against the Miami RedHawks next week. Perhaps, after a lackluster first two games in the United States, they’ll turn on the jets and enter the bulk of conference play on a high note, putting some wind in their sails as they try to cook up some even-year magic once again.

But what’s done is done. According to Yahoo Sports, Northwestern paid Southern Illinois over $500k to come to Evanston on Saturday, only for the mess that transpired to take place. That money is gone, and so too is the lingering confidence the Week Zero win conjured. What’s left in its place is a reoccurring belief for NU fans, one steeped in years of early-season disappointments: all that can be expected is the unexpected. The only consistency for this program is inconsistency.