1. Northwestern needs to play from ahead
This concept is one that can sometimes be overused in football analysis — teams that get leads tend to win more and do better because, well, better teams get leads more often — but it meshes with NU’s strengths and weaknesses on both offense and defense. The Wildcats are much better running on offense than throwing. When they get behind as early as they did in Saturday’s 48-7 loss to Iowa, they are forced to throw to catch up and senior quarterback Trevor Siemian’s weaknesses are magnified. When NU is on defense, it can keep opponents one-dimensional, as it did early in the season in upset wins over Wisconsin and Penn State.
If there is any optimism to take from a blowout loss, it is this: NU has never been as bad as its lows or as good as its highs this season. The opening minutes of Saturday’s game were a perfect storm — a long kickoff return here, a flea-flicker there — and it snowballed from there. By the time NU was down 17-0 less than 10 minutes into the game, the Cats were demoralized and could no longer play to their strengths. There is no excuse for looking as lackluster as NU did early in the game, particularly as it continues a trend of coach Pat Fitzgerald’s teams struggling in the games following bye weeks. Given the recent play of the offense, which has scored 7 points in the last 90 minutes of play, a lead may be hard to come by. But if the team can get out to an early lead on Saturday against Michigan, it will tilt the scales in its favor in more ways than just the score.
2. The biggest problem with NU’s coaches is no longer scheme, it’s player development.
The impressive play by NU’s freshmen this season has masked a concerning trend: Many of the Cats’ veteran players have stagnated or regressed. The most glaring example is certainly Siemian, whose yards per attempt, completion percentage and touchdown-interception ratio are all down compared to last year. But the receivers and superbacks, expected to be a strength coming into the year, have also struggled with drops and separating from defenders. The defense has now allowed successively more points in five consecutive weeks, with the front seven depleted by injuries and the secondary ceding chunks of yards at a time. From both a week-to-week and year-to-year standpoint, the lack of improvement nearly across the board is disappointing.
This has been compounded by an inability to get the most out of NU’s top recruits. Much has been made of the ability of Fitzgerald and his predecessors to turn two-star recruits into above-average Big Ten players, but some of the best players from recent classes haven’t panned out. Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Alviti has not shown enough to even get into game, despite Siemian’s struggles. Sophomore defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who starred earlier in the season against pass-happier teams, has hardly been heard from the last three weeks due to his struggles in the run game. Former five-star recruit Kyle Prater has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency, and his fumble on Saturday snuffed out any last chance of an NU rally. Odenigbo and Alviti are still young, and none of these players individually are the reason for the Cats’ struggles. But a program like NU that only pulls in so many highly touted recruits a year needs some of them to turn into stars to compete for Big Ten titles. The good sign for the Cats is that some of the top recruits from the past two classes — including Godwin Igwebuike, Justin Jackson and Garrett Dickerson — look like impact players moving forward.
We’ve written multiple times this season about the problems with the Cats’ scheme and in-game decision-making. Neither of those things is now perfect, but the coaches have shied away from the agonizing power run game in recent weeks, and a lack of faith in NU’s kicking game has forced them into more mathematically sound fourth-down decisions. Instead, the team’s recent slump has shone a light on a less-talked-about but equally important element of coaching, one in which Fitzgerald and company have been sorely lacking.
3. 3-9 is a real possibility
The unofficial mantra for NU fans for most of the season has been “just get to four.” Even after the disappointing 0-2 start, if the Cats could just muster four wins out of their first 10 games, the final two — against conference cellar-dwellers Purdue and Illinois — would push NU over the bowl-eligibility line. With NU limping to the season’s finish, that’s no longer a guarantee.
Both the Boilermakers and Illini have shown signs of life recently, with each playing Minnesota closer than NU did. Purdue lost to the Golden Gophers by a single point and Illinois beat them. As importantly, the Cats have shown no ability this season to take advantage of weaker opponents. Of their seven games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, two of the Cats’ three wins have come against the three best teams they have played, according to Football Outsiders’ F/+ rankings. Most embarrassing is the loss to 91st-ranked Northern Illinois, which currently sits below both Illinois and Purdue.
NU should still be favored to win both those games — amazingly, even after Saturday’s performance the Cats are actually slight favorites this week against Michigan — but with the team playing like this and its tendency to play down to weaker opponents, nothing is a given. Even if NU rallies to knock off the Wolverines, six wins is far from guaranteed.
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