Putterman: Another down season doesn’t necessarily mean disaster

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Putterman: Another down season doesn’t necessarily mean disaster

Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

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Everything seems important in its immediate aftermath.

Northwestern’s season-ending loss to Illinois seems important. The Wildcats’ uneven season seems more important. The program’s second straight 5-7 record seems most important.

But really, all of that is as likely an aberration as a trend.

It’s always easy to get lost in the micro considerations of a single season or two and lose sight of larger context. It’s also easy to draw conclusions from these small sample sizes that may not prove true long-term.

Truth is, we don’t know what’s next for NU football.

After the Cats’ struggles of 2013 and 2014, there’s unavoidable temptation to question the direction of the program. But assuming now that the bottom has fallen out would be no less dangerous than assuming a gold-paved future after 10 wins in 2012.

For all we know, we’ll soon look back on 2014 as a transitional year. We’ll remember Trevor Siemian as a stopgap and poor play on the offensive line as a short-lived personnel issue to be solved with a new group of guys. Maybe this year’s legacy will be Justin Jackson’s gained experience, which will pay off with a Big Ten West title in the near future.

Sub-par quarterback play probably cost the Cats at least a win or two in 2014. But if Clayton Thorson steps in as quarterback next year and becomes a star, we’ll forget 2014’s quarterback struggles immediately.

That’s not the most likely scenario, but it’s certainly possible. And even if Thorson (or whoever quarterbacks NU next year) isn’t great, maybe a stout defense and some good fortune will lift the team to eight wins in 2015. We saw this year how unsteady the middle of the Big Ten is, with numerous teams looking unstoppable one week and unwatchable the next. Why can’t the Cats emerge from a situation like that with a few more victories?

This is no prediction. NU may win two games or 10 next season. But how the team performed in Saturday’s game, missing seven starters including its quarterback, shouldn’t affect the expectation.

Nor should the failed two-point conversion against Michigan or, for that matter, the game-winning field goal against Notre Dame. With so many games decided along the margins, calling five wins a failure but six or seven a success is overly simplistic.

In fact, there’s no reason to think these five-win seasons are different from the six- and seven-win seasons of 2011 and 2010 in any way but quarterback play and random variance. In the context of program history, consecutive 5-7 seasons isn’t any cause for outrage.  Missing a bowl this year hurts for many reasons, but it doesn’t necessarily signal wider disaster.

Of course there’s room for improvement, and of course Pat Fitzgerald and the Cats’ coaching staff should take responsibility for the program’s recent struggles. Of course NU strives to be the type of program for which anything less than eight wins is a disappointment. And of course the Cats might perform just as poorly in 2015 as they did in 2014, maybe even worse.

But we don’t know.

Next season will bring plenty of uncertainty, at individual positions and for the program in general. The departing senior class anchored NU’s defense and contributed to its offense. Filling the holes will be no easy task.

Sometimes uncertainty results in trouble, like in 2014. Other times, it offers opportunity, as in 2012. Back then, Trevyon Green looked like the running back of the future and Venric Mark like a career role player. In college football, surprises strike as often as not. Extrapolation often means nothing.

Maybe NU’s downfall has begun or maybe the Cats will prove these struggles a blip on a slow-moving upward trajectory.

Our inability to read the future doesn’t mean it won’t be a good one.

Email: asputt@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AlexPutt02