Nadkarni: Wildcats lacking execution, answers after second straight loss


Rohan Nadkarni, Gameday Editor

There’s an old adage in football, one that Northwestern often uses — don’t let the same team beat you twice.

That is to say, don’t let a loss from the previous week spill into the next, making you fall again because you were too focused on the last game.

Well, it sure felt like Wisconsin beat NU twice Saturday. Not because the loss may carry over, but because in their 35-6 drubbing, the Badgers exposed a variety of the Wildcats’ holes.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald often lauds his team for responding to losses well. The Cats certainly did last season, winning after each of their three defeats. But against stiffer conference competition Saturday, NU showed it must improve its level of execution to beat the league’s best.

For a program that seemingly fights for relevance on every snap, Fitzgerald’s bunch have yet to put together a full 60 minutes of execution this season. There were lulls against lesser competition like Maine and Western Michigan and another blown fourth quarter lead against Ohio State.

On Saturday, the Cats’ defense started the game respectably. Linemen held up against the run, and linebackers were disciplined and made tackles. However, despite the help from the defense, the offense could not capitalize. There was an interception, another red zone drive without a touchdown and poor pass protection around every corner.

Eventually, the Badgers began breaking out with big plays, and the offense had no answer.

The defense faced its own issues. The unit has become too reliant on turnovers and struggles to make stops without taking the ball away. NU’s front seven showed issues again dealing with a physical running game, and the defense completely wore down as the game went on.

Special teams, a bright spot last season with an All-American returner and Lou Groza-level kicker, also faltered. Senior punter Brandon Williams, who to a casual viewer probably looked like the team’s most utilized offensive weapon, couldn’t help flip field position at all. The return game, which has essentially lost the services of senior running back Venric Mark, offers no threat of a big play.

So as we look to the rest of the season, how do the Cats deal with physical rushing attacks? How does NU deal with injury problems with Mark and senior Kain Colter? Can the defense force offenses to punt?

These are all questions Fitzgerald must answer, but the lack of patience with this frenzied fan base will demand quick ones.

Fitzgerald hardly bothered to answer my questions after the game Saturday. I asked him why he chose to punt three times — on fourth-and-8, fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-4 — while the team was down 22 points in the second half.

Fitzgerald said he didn’t “recall” those situations, adding that they must have been either very long conversions or come after negative plays. In fact, the three plays came after two incomplete passes and one completion.

The questions will only become harder, and the answers more difficult to find for Fitzgerald and the Cats, until they can consistently win “the big one.” And after two straight losses to start conference play, just about every game from here on out will be a big one if NU hopes to play in a bowl game of any significance.

Unfortunately, even if the Cats do win next week, it only counts once.

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Twitter: @Rohan_NU