Nadkarni: Fitzgerald continues to retreat with game on the line


Rohan Nadkarni, Gameday Editor

It should have never come down to a miracle field goal.

Northwestern’s sixth-straight loss Saturday can be put squarely on the shoulders of coach Pat Fitzgerald and his suspect play calling. Because when Fitzgerald plays conservatively and allows the fate of the game to be decided with the ball in the other team’s hands, he should not expect to win.

On their second-to-last drive of the game, the Cats faced a fourth down near midfield. NU needed less than one yard for a conversion. Fitzgerald decided to punt — after the team’s last punt traveled seven yards and set Michigan up in a goal-to-go situation.

The Cats’ 24-yard punt in that situation was rendered moot when Michigan completed a 24-yard pass on the very next play. Later in the drive, the Wolverines went for it on fourth down inside the five-yard line. Even though Michigan failed, coach Brady Hoke put the fate of the game in his team’s hands and showed faith and confidence in his struggling offense.

Unsurprisingly, the Wolverines won the game in overtime.

For another example, take Southern California, which fired Lane Kiffin earlier in the season. The Trojans’ interim coach Ed Orgeron went for it on fourth and two late in his team’s game against Stanford, and USC drove down the field for a winning field goal in a huge upset.

Yet NU, owner of a deflated 0-6 record in conference play, refuses to play like it has nothing to lose. Instead, when the game gets tight, Fitzgerald clams up, and his identity spreads to a squad incapable of closing teams out in the fourth quarter.

How many more weeks — or years — will we have to watch Fitzgerald make baffling decisions late in the game? He’s shown competence in the past, including a late fourth down attempt in Ann Arbor, Mich., last year, as well as a fourth down attempt early in Saturday’s game.

But the Cats’ most recent loss perpetuates a disturbing trend — it seems this team is scared to win with the ball in its hands.

And let’s not make this all about fourth downs. Whose idea was the Trevor Siemian-Mike Trumpy speed option on third down? And how about three straight, uninspiring run plays on NU’s last drive before halftime?

In reality, the Cats are much better than their 0-6 conference record would suggest. Games against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan all swung on just two or three plays in the fourth quarter.

However, NU is very deserving of that record because on those two or three big plays, it almost always chooses to retreat instead of thinking big.

As for pressure, Fitzgerald can snarl, “my job is on the line,” as he did after the Cats’ loss against Iowa. Remember that game? When Fitzgerald didn’t use his timeouts at the end of the fourth to give the ball back to his offense?

Fitzgerald’s job isn’t on the line in any way, and it’s clear that he feels no pressure. Otherwise — maybe just once — the Cats would rise as the aggressor late in the game, instead of the victim of each weekend’s most ridiculous finish.

Should Fitzgerald’s job be on the line? I don’t know.

But maybe his team would win if he started coaching like it.

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Twitter: @rohan_nu