As the 2022 season has progressed and we’ve grown bigger and bigger since August 27 (which feels like years), the storylines surrounding North West football have become more and more redundant. When a team is unable to come out of a venue in the United States with a win, it’s hard to try to generate different angles or spin all kinds of positives.
Yet after a 31-3 thrashing in freezing Minnesota this week, the words are much clearer: Until the Northwest changes Something in his approach, the Wildcats don’t have the combination of player talent, wise coaching, or in-game synergy to win a game against a conference team, let alone any team.
To his credit, Pat Fitzgerald put second Brendan Sullivan under center in Northwestern’s lifeless effort against Wisconsin. The Michigan native has been playing relatively well, earning a career-best 77.2 Pro Football Focus in Minneapolis, but still hasn’t been ‘unlocked’ as it should be – underscoring the ineffectiveness of coaching .
In four of their last six games, NU have failed to reach even 10 runs scored; even as a Steelers fan, that stat is incredibly bad. Also, only once in his previous 18 games has Mike Bajakian’s offense exceeded 24 points.
Conditions and injuries affect offensive play, but a good coach must transcend the uncontrollable elements to create a winning game plan. That just hasn’t happened with the Wildcats’ lackluster offense, which can string together yards with its skill but hasn’t established rhythmic, commanding streaks that score touchdowns.
Defensively, things aren’t much better for Jim O’Neil’s unit. In each of Northwestern’s last 16 games, the opponent has scored at least 17 points; 14 of them have seen the opposition laying down 350 or more total yards. Long gone are the days of the stuffy, avaricious unit of Mike Hankwitz, who has given up 10 points or less on three occasions in nine contests in 2020.
Yes, possession time is a defensive fatigue factor. After the game, Fitzgerald quoted as much, with the clock favoring the Gophers 40:22 to 7:38. At the same time, it’s the second straight year UMN has eclipsed 300 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns against the ‘Cats. It’s not exactly like PJ Fleck’s team approach is cloudy – O’Neil’s defense just doesn’t have any answers.
As Northwestern seemingly lost either way, the media sessions grew increasingly bleak. That was especially the case after Saturday’s showdown, which saw Ryan Hilinski fired with a low blow and sent Sullivan out of the game with an injury.
Speaking to the media, Malik Washington and Jeremiah Lewis pointed to the celebration of NU seniors in their last two games. With matchups against 6-4 Purdue and 7-3 Illinois remaining on the schedule, the festivities look less and less likely to win a football game.
What might be the even scarier epiphany for Northwestern is that they have become arguably the worst team in the Power Five. On Saturday alone, the historically mediocre Arizona and Vanderbilt programs earned their fourth victories over road-ranked teams at UCLA and Kentucky, respectively. Kansas, Duke and UConn, the traditional “lovable losers,” are now also bowl eligible.
The only team really challenging the Wildcats for the mantle is Colorado, but the Buffaloes have a) won at least one game in America this calendar year, b) had four conference wins in the past two seasons (compared to two for Northwestern) and c) will not. have allocated almost $1 billion to football resources over the last 10 years.
When the ‘Cats hit the road, fans in enemy territory internalized that their home team is ready for a retooling, “do well” game. That should never be the case in conference games, but especially in the convoluted and frantic Big Ten West.
Over the past 22 games, it’s been clear: the status quo isn’t working for North West football. If big changes don’t happen in the next two games — and, far more crucially, before next year — the Wildcats will send a strong message that demoralizing losses are the expectation rather than the exception.