Pat Fitzgerald is not happy with the way his team has played through the first two weeks of this season. After practice on Wednesday, he used an expletive and described the Wildcats as an "embarrassment to anyone who's ever put on the purple and white." Is he right?
Northwestern has dropped home games to Cal and Northern Illinois, both of whom Wildcats fans expected their team to beat. It's too early to tell how good Cal or Northern Illinois truly are, but I think it's safe to presume Northwestern will face better teams in conference play. Which is why this 0-2 start is troubling.
In the preseason, when you casually run through a schedule and project a team's win total, you like to think you can make assumptions about certain games. For instance, Northwestern fans thought their team would beat Cal, and for good reason. Cal sucked in 2013, and there wasn't much to suggest they'd be a lot better this year.
But what if we were wrong? What if Cal, with a new defensive coordinator and a year of experience under Sonny Dykes, is just better than a Northwestern team without Venric Mark and Christian Jones? In that same vein, what if Northern Illinois, despite losing Jordan Lynch and key defensive contributors, is also better?
If that's the case, then maybe Northwestern fans shouldn't be upset with how their team has fared so far. Maybe their expectations for the Wildcats were unrealistic in the first place. Many won't acknowledge this possibility, choosing instead to blame Northwestern's 0-2 start on other fuzzy things like grit and toughness.
That's what Fitz is getting at here. This week, instead of moving practice inside during a rain storm, the Wildcats stayed outdoors. Upperclassmen slated for a day off worked out, and players were put through conditioning drills and ordered to do up-downs after committing mistakes. The message? We want to get tougher.
"I played on two championship teams here because we had a hard edge and we were tough," Fitz said, according the Chicago Tribune. "I've coached five bowl teams here in a row and coached multiple guys who have played at an All-Big Ten level, and they were tough.
"Right now our football team is not very tough, and that's an embarrassment from my standpoint. It's an embarrassment for anyone who's ever put on the purple and white."
It has been suggested that this lack of toughness has roots in fall camp, when many players sat out, presumably in the interest of avoiding injuries. Not participating in preseason workouts, the logic goes, was the wrong way to approach what was being billed as a potential comeback season after going 5-7 in 2013.
This week's more rigorous practices, then, can be interpreted as Fitz's attempt at making up lost ground, as if training harder now will help erase the lax attitude prevalent in Kenosha. The question is, will it work? Can Northwestern recapture the "hard edge" Fitz's teams had in the 1990s? More crucially: Will it even matter?
Based on what we've seen so far this season, it seems obvious Northwestern's problems run much deeper than attitude. Scheme, playcalling and poor execution in critical situations come to mind. Playing with more toughness is a start, but it's hardly the most important thing Northwestern need to address right now.