Rosenberg: Another Northwestern midseason turnaround is possible, but it must start now


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Pat Fitzgerald encourages his team. The Wildcats will play at Nebraska on Saturday in what amounts to a must-win game.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Web Editor


It really feels like déjà vu for Northwestern.

At this time last year, the Wildcats were 1-3, coming off a loss to a ranked Michigan team, in which they played better than expected, and heading into a road game against a good-but-beatable Michigan State team.

Before that Michigan State game, coach Pat Fitzgerald said he thought his team was “close” to putting things together. And he turned out to be right, as NU beat the Spartans to start a stretch of seven wins in eight games that propelled the Cats to the Big Ten West title.

A year later, here we are again. NU’s offense was abysmal last week against Wisconsin, directly spotting the Badgers 14 points, as the Cats fell to 1-3, and players and fans alike are searching for answers.

So, is NU “close” to turning it around again?

“Outside of self-inflicted wounds, I think we’re really close,” Fitzgerald said last Saturday. “There wasn’t a guy on that boundary who didn’t think we were going to win that game, all the way through the end. Our guys have great confidence and trust in themselves.”

But it will take more than confidence and trust to start winning games. This is actually the fourth year in a row the Cats have started slowly — NU has been 1-3 in three of those four seasons — but there was a common denominator among those teams that this one lacks: Clayton Thorson.

Thorson wasn’t a great college quarterback, but he was as consistent as they come. He always had the ability to make the Cats competitive and get the most out of offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s system.

None of the Cats’ quarterbacks this year have shown that ability. Both sophomore Hunter Johnson and junior Aidan Smith have looked lost at times running the offense and hesitant with their decision-making.

NU quarterbacks have completed just 47 percent of their passes — one of only nine FBS teams below 50 percent — through four games, with two receiving touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Cats are also in the bottom 10 in the country in passing yards per completion and per game.

So it will take a dramatic improvement by the offense to get things moving in the right direction. But this week’s opponent, Nebraska, might offer an opportunity for the unit to do just that.

The Cornhuskers could not be more different than last year’s defensive-minded Michigan State team. Nebraska is strong offensively, averaging 435 yards per game, but has struggled on the defensive side, most notably last week, when it was throttled 48-7 by a dominant Ohio State team.

Even in one of the most raucous environments in college football, the Cornhuskers are beatable. NU, in fact, has won three times in its last four matchups in Lincoln, with the lone loss coming in 2013 on a Hail Mary.

With the Cats 0-2 in Big Ten play, another division title is all but out of the question. But that doesn’t mean NU’s season is over. A respectable bowl game is still well within reach, and with it, a chance to earn a fourth straight bowl victory.

A loss to Nebraska, however, would put the Cats in uncharted territory — they have never started 1-4 in Fitzgerald’s 13 years at the helm of the program. With the Buckeyes up next on the schedule, NU would face an extreme uphill battle just to make the postseason.

Someday, we might learn why the Cats have been such slow starters lately. The past, however, doesn’t matter now. NU still has a chance to get something out of this season. It has to start with a win this Saturday.

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Twitter: @bxrosenberg