Football: Writers ruminate on Northwestern’s woes


Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Freshman running back Solomon Vault scores a touchdown against Western Illinois. The Wildcats have struggled offensively during non-conference play and begin their Big Ten schedule Saturday at Penn State.

Alex Putterman and Rohan Nadkarni

The Daily’s Alex Putterman and Rohan Nadkarni exchange emails about the Northwestern football team as it enters Big Ten play Saturday at Penn State.

PUTTERMAN: We’re about two weeks away from Oct. 5, a date stuck in the minds of all Northwestern football fans. That was the day, a year ago, when ESPN’s College Gameday came to Evanston and the Wildcats almost beat Ohio State in front of an electric, sold-out crowd at Ryan Field. That will probably end up being my favorite 24 hours of college. Everyone was wearing purple, campus was buzzing, football was on our collective minds.

Now, only 50 weeks later, NU football is back to being a punch-line. After losing seven of eight to close last season, the Cats are 1-2 in 2014, struggled with Western Illinois, have no quarterback play and enter Big Ten play without having played even a great half, let alone a great game. Most shockingly, people are mad at Pat Fitzgerald! A year ago that guy was unassailable, and now fans and media members are talking about him like he’s Mack Brown meets whoever-coaches-the-Washington-Generals. Rohan, how in the name of Otto Graham did this happen?

NADKARNI: The first thing that comes to my mind is, was the Gator Bowl season a fluke? NU avoided big-time teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin that season, and won a fair share of close games they had serious trouble with last season. If you look at the Wildcats’ win total in the four seasons before their bowl win, it decreased by one each year, falling from nine to six. The 10-win year sticks out like a sore thumb, especially with the five-win campaign last year. Maybe NU was just never as good as we thought they were after the bowl win. Fitzgerald also used that bowl game to raise expectations for himself and the program, which I think he would admit he regrets.

I also wonder if this team is as talented as the better recruiting would indicate. We’ve seen flashes of stars, for sure. Ifeadi Odenigbo can develop into an every-down menace if he improves his run defense, and Justin Jackson has been a bright spot early this season. But just from my freshman year to now, I feel like there’s been a decrease in dependable players. Dan Persa was dependable. So were Jeremy Ebert, Kain Colter and Venric Mark. And on the defensive end, we knew what to expect from Tyler Scott, Brian Peters, David Nwabuisi or Damien Proby. Whom do we rely on for this team?

We thought the guy would be Trevor Siemian this year. But his play has left a lot to be desired. Not sure if I am, but are you ready to see anyone else take some snaps under center?

PUTTERMAN: Entering this year, I was pretty convinced 2012 was a positive fluke due to that easy schedule and 2013 was a negative fluke because of all the injuries and close losses and that this team was actually somewhere in between. Three games in, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

I think the talent is there at most positions, especially on defense. Ibraheim Campbell, Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo fit my definition of “dependable.” In fact, NU’s defense has been passable this year.

The problem really lies in the offense. Siemian is taking all the heat, and while some of it is definitely his fault, the offensive line hasn’t been very good, there are questions in the running game (short-term, anyway) and the receivers can’t stay healthy. I was starting to think about whether a quarterback change would make sense, but then at his press conference Monday, Fitz talked about the struggles he’s seen from the whole position group, not just Siemian, and it really made me wonder whether back-up Zack Oliver is a better option. I’m inclined to trust Fitz if he says the options behind Siemian are shaky. If Siemian continues to struggle though, it can’t hurt to give Oliver or maybe even redshirt freshman Matt Alviti a look.

NADKARNI: I’m curious to see if we find out Siemian’s injury from the Northern Illinois game ends up being a bigger deal than we think it is now. Last year, we were told after the last game he had a heel injury affecting his performance. However, it’s not like Siemian was playing great before going down against the Huskies.

The offense has been suffocating to watch so far this year. But it’s amazing to think how many problems there are on this team. I know the defense has been passable, but it’s not like NU has been playing juggernauts. Do you trust the secondary against Penn State? The defensive tackles against Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon? I feel like the Cats have no advantages on the field anymore. The receivers are all very talented, but who in that group has truly realized their potential? And let’s not forget about special teams. Two years ago, NU had an All-American returner and a kicker with a serious case for the Lou Groza Award. Now, the Cats have pretty much given up on returning punts and kicker Jack Mitchell is such an unknown quantity in the field goal game he may actually force Fitzgerald to be aggressive on fourth down.

What’s sad about all of this is that NU is losing a golden opportunity to capitalize on a weak Big Ten. The Cats’ division, really the conference, is pretty wide open. Because of that, NU may be given a chance it doesn’t necessarily deserve to salvage this season. What are your final thoughts headed into conference play?

PUTTERMAN: One important thing to realize about this team: It’s not really that young. The offense will lose six starters to graduation after this season and the defense will lose four, including its entire starting linebacker group. Of the guys coming back, how many have established themselves as Big Ten-caliber starters? Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry maybe. Probably Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. Dean Lowry? All are pretty good, but are they the types who can carry the team next year?

I’m worried next year could be worse than this one, and beyond that it’s near-impossible to forecast. That means the 2014 Cats really need to rally and at least salvage a bowl game out of this season. There are enough winnable games to make that happen, but the margin for error is low.

I’ll let you have the final word. Where does the season and the program go from here?

NADKARNI: I think there’s still noise to be made this season. As underwhelming as NU has looked in the first three games, and as much as the statistics show this team is not ready to compete in the Big Ten, I think the coaching staff deserves just the slightest benefit of the doubt. Why’s that? In my four years here, I can only think of one time the Cats didn’t compete on the field: last year against Wisconsin. Otherwise, NU finds itself in close games in the Big Ten, and those can swing on just a couple plays. I haven’t seen enough from most other Big Ten teams to think the Cats won’t have a chance to win every Saturday from here on out (except maybe against the Badgers).

As for the program, Fitzgerald needs to do some serious soul-searching. The expectations need to be re-calibrated. Northwestern needs to earn back the respect it had after the Gator Bowl. This team is closer to being the Big Ten cellar dweller it has always been than to being the conference contender it thinks it is. And the only way they can prove to be more than a cute story is to consistently win. It’s up to Fitzgerald to decide if he can adapt enough to achieve that kind of consistency. Because whatever is happening right now isn’t working.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @AlexPutt02

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @Rohan_NU