Football: Varnes: Last non-conference matchup carries massive implications for Northwestern football


Joanne Haner/Daily Senior Staffer

Willie the Wildcat poses on the field. Northwestern has dropped both of its contests at Ryan Field despite being heavily favored.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald stepped to the podium last Saturday tasked with addressing the how’s and why’s of Northwestern’s seemingly improbable one-score loss to Southern Illinois. 

He credited the Salukis for their game plan and then spoke of the Wildcats’ failure to win the turnover battle, their inconsistency, their self-inflicted wounds and the impact of injuries on the secondary. Fitzgerald’s comments were similar to the prior Saturday, when NU fell to Duke in what should have been a winnable, non-conference matchup.

Will his post-game remarks this upcoming Saturday run through the Cats’ woes and miscues yet again? Let’s hope not. 

Favored by a score against non-conference opponent Miami (Ohio), NU needs a win Saturday. Sure, maybe not for the Big Ten West standings, but the program’s standing and bowl hopes ride on their performance.

NU is less than two years removed from a Big Ten West title and a Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn. Yet, the Cats went 3-9 in 2021 and, if Saturday doesn’t pan out, there is a very real potential they could go 1-11 in 2022. 

This is troubling for a program that has experienced inconsistent success in recent years. NU, for the most part, had no trouble recording winning seasons until 2019 came along. Since then, with the exception of 2021, it has been a bumpy road for the Cats. It’s been nearly a decade since NU last recorded two back-to-back losing seasons in 2013 and 2014, and doing so again in 2021 and 2022 would certainly be steps in the wrong direction. 

Sure, the 2021 and 2022 teams have been riddled with injuries. Last season, it was then-sophomore running back Cam Porter and quarterback Andrew Marty. Now, it’s a depleted defense that misses key players like senior defensive back A.J. Hampton, junior safety Coco Azema and junior defensive back Cam Mitchell.

Things are certainly challenging right now, and younger players are doing their best to step up to the plate. Fitzgerald and his players alike have spoken about the “next man up mentality” in the secondary. 

But you can’t blame multiple losing seasons on injuries. And it’s difficult to blame it on a lack of talent. Several of the Cats’ current stars, including junior running back Evan Hull, junior offensive lineman Peter Skoronski and Porter, played an integral part in the program’s run to the Citrus Bowl in 2020. 

Three games into 2022, it’s probably too early to assign blame. But if NU fumbles another winnable matchup against the RedHawks on Saturday, anything and everything should be on the table – including changing up starters and firing coaches. 

The value of this matchup might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It’s a non-conference matchup in September with no real Big Ten consequences. Yet, it could provide a preview of what lies ahead in the Big Ten. 

It’s hard to picture the Cats, who lost by a score to an FCS team, triumphantly leaving the field in Happy Valley next weekend to a ranked Penn State team. Taking on Wisconsin for Homecoming and Ohio State for parents weekend seems downright frightening.

Following the loss against the Salukis, Fitzgerald said changes and improvements would happen at practice, though he said the same after the team fell to the Blue Devils. 

This weekend’s matchup could provide proof that these changes worked. Or, it could provide a preview of the tough months to come. 

Entering this season, I thought NU could reach a bowl game. I believed hitting 6-6 would be a bare minimum, even given the 2021 season. After losing two winnable, non-conference matchups, I’m not so sure the Cats can pull it off. If they fall to Miami, their chances are long gone.

Beyond 2022, the most significant consequence of NU’s woes could come with its 2023 recruiting class. Ranked 30th in the country, the class includes two four-stars and will be one of the Cats’ best classes to date – if they all remain committed. 

Losing to three non-conference opponents as clear favorites, including an FCS team, could be enough to force decommitments, which wouldn’t bode well for the Cats. 

Saturday’s matchup against the Red Hawks isn’t just a light-hearted, non-conference game. My eyes will be glued to the field, well aware that a lot rides on NU winning. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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