A change could do NU good

Matt Baker

Last season, Northwestern football suffered a loss to woeful Duke, a devastating collapse at home against Iowa and an embarrassing performance at Illinois.

After each defeat, coach Pat Fitzgerald placed the blame in the same spot: the coaches.

If that’s the case, then Fitzgerald should be cheering at Ryan Field over the firing of defensive coordinator Greg Colby and the resignation of offensive coordinator Garrick McGee.

Although it’s too easy to blame all of NU’s problems this season on coaching, it’s a good place to start. In Illinois’ 41-22 romp over NU, the Wildcats looked like kindergartners trying to tackle the faster Illini.

Considering NU had Fitzgerald, one of the greatest tacklers in NCAA history, pacing the sidelines, the Cats’ play was unacceptable. And Fitzgerald took offense to it.

“Put that on the coaches,” Fitzgerald said after losing to Illinois. “(The Illini) didn’t do anything new today. They didn’t do anything we hadn’t prepared for. As a coach, that’s my job.”

But it wasn’t just Fitzgerald’s job; it was the entire staff’s job. And the entire staff failed.

Colby deserves much of the blame for NU’s abysmal defense, which finished 77th in average yards allowed last season. Since taking over as coordinator in 2002, NU has ranked no higher than 68th nationally in total defense. The Cats were second-to-last in 2002 and dead last in 2005 – despite a squad that boasted three seniors who were drafted in the NFL.

The defensive shortcomings were obvious, but the offense’s inconsistencies make it harder to judge. McGee turned an offense that looked anemic in 2006 into the nation’s No. 11 passing team last season.

But he still made mistakes. He encouraged Fitzgerald to take points off of the board against Duke in a 20-14 loss that kept the Cats out of a bowl. His play-calling against Purdue kept the ball out of junior running back Tyrell Sutton’s hands despite racking up 72 yards on only 12 carries.

And as powerful as the offense looked in spurts, it disappeared during long stretches and showed inconsistencies that are hallmarks of poor coaching.

“At the end of the day, we need to do a much better job making sure our guys play consistently and with more discipline to give us an opportunity to win,” Fitzgerald said after the 28-17 loss to Iowa. “I take that squarely on my shoulders.”

With two seasons under his belt as head coach, Fitzgerald got two big reminders this month that the third year is a coach’s make-or-break season. LSU’s Les Miles won the BCS National Championship on Monday in his third year with the Tigers, and Ron Zook took Illinois to this year’s Rose Bowl in his third season.

While those goals might be too lofty for the Cats, the message is clear now that Colby and McGee are gone.

If NU suffers through another mediocre season, Fitzgerald will have no one left to blame but himself.