Identity missing for Cats

Wade Askew

We have celebrated, we have suffered. We have lauded, we have condemned. Often, we’ve just been bewildered.

But the one thing that we as Northwestern football fans have not gotten a handle on is a sense of who this team really is.

After 10 weeks of up-and-down play and coaching, I could not for the life of me come up with a succinct description of this team’s identity. One minute the offense is dynamic (see: Michigan State, Minnesota wins), the next it is anemic (see: Duke, Ohio State losses).

For stretches at a time, the defense seems like it just might rise to the level of a legitimate Big Ten defense, containing the likes of Mike Hart of Michigan and Curtis Painter of Purdue, but then they go and let a guy like Thaddeus Lewis of Duke look like a Heisman candidate as he completed more than 80 percent of his passes for 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 20-14 win over NU early in the season.

The debacle at Ryan Field this weekend against Iowa was a microcosm of all of this. In two of their first three possessions, the Wildcats marched down the field and scored 14 points on a legitimate Iowa defense. After that, NU had as many turnovers (3) as points.

Defensively, NU held the Hawkeyes to three-and-outs in their first three possessions. After that, NU let Jake freaking Christensen throw for 299 yards a week after he completed five – yes, five – passes in an entire game against the same Michigan State secondary that allowed C.J. Bacher to toss for 520 yards.

There were so many inexplicable elements of this game it hurt. To avoid boring you and repeating what has already been said by others, let me just point out my favorite: handing the ball to Tyrell Sutton, unquestionably the best player on the team, gimpy ankle or not, a grand total of eight times in the second half – including just twice in the fourth quarter – after he gained 96 yards on 15 carries in the first half.

There is simply no logical explanation for that play calling. None. It defies all sorts of conventional wisdom, including: Put the ball in the hands of your best player; run the ball with the lead in the fourth quarter; and don’t throw the ball 54 times when your quarterback is averaging under five yards per attempt on the day, has a propensity for throwing the ball to the wrong colored jerseys, and the team you are playing leads the Big Ten in turnover margin.

The most frustrating thing about this team has been its inconsistency, its flashes of brilliance followed by head-scratching performances. The past two weeks have only followed suit in a year’s worth of mind-boggling mediocrity – both saw the Cats take a 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter, both resulted in double-digit losses.

This team got what it deserved in each of its losses. It had a legitimate shot to win each one except the embarrassing 58-7 Ohio State throttling, and those four other losses were as much a factor of the Cats’ own short-comings as other team’s ability to capitalize on NU’s stagnation and mistakes.

Whether it be failing to score in four downs inside the Duke 10 yard-line as time expired in NU’s devastating non-conference loss to the Blue Devils, or C.J. Bacher’s four fourth-quarter turnovers in four possessions that occurred when the offensive line decided it would be more fun to play patty-cake with Michigan rushers than to block them, NU only has itself to blame for being 5-5 instead of 9-1.

Last year was frustrating because the Cats were clearly inferior to their Big Ten peers; this year may be more infuriating because they are not. The team certainly has its flaws, including a lack of athleticism on defense, a porous secondary, questionable playcalling and constant mental lapses, but NU was not clearly over-matched in any loss other than the joke at Ohio State.

Now NU must win its last two games to reach a bowl game, and it has just as good a chance to win both as lose both.

The results rest on one question that should have been answered long ago: What is the true identity of this team?

Deputy sports editor Wade Askew is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]