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Northwestern football in search of answers, but none lie nearby

It’s only Week Four, but time is running out for the Wildcats to self-diagnose.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald carries many of the same qualities with him into every press conference: diligence, respect for those covering the Wildcats and optimism about his team. Saturday night was rather stark, with Fitzgerald looking like the distraught, somber coach of a reeling team.

The ‘Cats (1-3, 0-1 B1G) dropped their third straight game yesterday, and the second to a non-Power Five opponent no less. Despite outgaining Miami (OH) 364-278 in total yardage and collecting three more sacks, NU lost 17-14, failing to capitalize on opportunities all day.

“We continue to beat ourselves,” Fitzgerald said from the Welsh-Ryan Arena media room following the game. “You gotta take care of the ball. You gotta win the turnover ratio. You gotta score points across the 50. You gotta continue to limit explosive plays.”

While the 17-year head man said determining solutions to his ailing squad’s play isn’t “rocket science,” nobody else seems attune to takeoff calculations or fuel gages, either.

Not even one month ago, Northwestern looked like a team that could legitimately contend for the Big Ten West; the Wildcats moved the ball downfield behind a stellar offensive line and a bevy of skill-position players, and the defense seized offensive miscues to seal a signature win in Ireland. That NU contingent doesn’t look much like the one we’ve seen the last three weeks, which doesn’t make enough key plays on offense or defense to fully control, let alone dominate, a football game.

Those donning purple (or black for Saturday night’s “blackout”) have understandably been very frustrated with the performance of Jim O’Neil’s defense, which reached a new low bar by yielding 31 points and 357 total yards to FCS team Southern Illinois. Against Miami, though, O’Neil’s unit played well for the most part; RedHawk quarterback Aveon Smith completed just seven of his 19 attempts for 67 yards, and star receiver Mac Hippenhammer had only two catches for 20 yards and a score.

Of course, Northwestern’s run defense continued to look rather suspect in the latter stages of the game. Running back Keyon Mozee tallied 21 carries for a prolific 171 yards, 66 of which came on one play on the drive following a Wildcat touchdown. Nonetheless, the RedHawks punted seven times and averaged 4.4 yards per play.

“I thought, for the most part, our defense played pretty well,” Fitzgerald said.

The fact that Northwestern, despite amending one of its biggest issues in the last two years, still couldn’t beat a MAC team at home is where the real concerns arise.

If the last three games, in which NU was favored to win handily, are any indication, it’s that this is a fundamentally flawed football team from the top down. And yet, there don’t seem to be many immediate fixes — rather the same answers from weeks past about areas of improvement.

“We just gotta continue to coach these guys,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like we had a couple drops. It looked like we turned the ball over. It looked like we missed some targets. We had some one-on-one opportunities and didn’t look like we made anybody miss. We had some empty drives with fourth downs.”

Such mistakes are inevitable for a group of 22 starting players (and countless reserves) over the course of a 12-game season and are arguably to be expected in the first game or two of the year. But, these miscues simply cannot be deeply embedded in a team after opposing three “easier” foes. To consistently note them as issues week in and week out, but to not correct them on the field, is frightening — and the mark of a lost team.

Fitzgerald emphasized the lack of a “practice problem,” noting that what the ‘Cats saw “across the board, is exactly what we practiced.” How, then, did Northwestern not easily defeat a less talented, starting quarterback-devoid Miami team?

Maybe the most startling element is that Miami could have, and arguably should have, beaten the ‘Cats with ease. RedHawk kicker Graham Nicholson went 0-for-2 on his first two field goal attempts, including a ball that clanked off the upright, before his game-winner. Smith missed at least one wide-open receiver that would have been a walk-in touchdown. Several favorable calls and consistent red zone errors beleaguered Chris Martin’s team. A number of Ryan Hilinski throws were into a slew of white jerseys but fell harmlessly to the ground.

It’s not just Fitzgerald who doesn’t have any definitive path forward to improvement, alluding to not wanting to make drastic changes. Northwestern’s own players, and notably veterans, are looking introspectively at areas for correction.

“We gotta find a way to just finish these games,” cornerback Cam Mitchell said. “It’s the mentality. Guys just gotta want it.”

“Guys just not hustling, not what we do in practice,” Hilinski said. “Whatever it is, we just gotta do it. We gotta figure it out. This is not Northwestern football.”

In particular, Hilinski appeared to get choked up talking about the loss and the team’s recent stretch of disappointing outings at Ryan Field.

“We just gotta come in and have that mindset that we want to get better, that we actually want to turn this ship around. ‘Cause if you don’t, get the eff out,” Hilinski stressed. “It’s as simple as that. You shouldn’t be here if you don’t want to win.”

Entering the conference portion of your schedule — and opening with a trip to Happy Valley to take on No. 14 Penn State, no less — is already intimidating enough. But to do so without a firm plan for fixes, without the ability to inspire fear in an opponent, without a clear identity as a football team, leaves everyone wondering about the legitimate probability of any victories in the foreseeable future.