Football: “All of our goals are still in sight”: Wildcats outline path forward after winless September

From a 21-0 first-half deficit to Duke to start Northwestern’s stretch of September games to a run of 10 unanswered points that gave Miami (Ohio) a late win and mercifully ended the month, the Wildcats’ winless three-game homestand has derailed what looked to be a promising and program-defining season. 

In a span of three weeks, non-conference opponents Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami marched into Ryan Field as significant underdogs and used the Cats’ self-destructions and lapses to come out victorious. In those losses, NU’s identity as a football program has crumbled, imitated more closely by their string of opponents than themselves. 

“We beat ourselves three straight weeks,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That’s what we used to do to people: we turn people over, we give ourselves a short field. The recipe to winning is still the same.”

Lingering in this month’s malaise doesn’t do much to help the Cats (1-3, 1-0 Big Ten) move forward, though, and Fitzgerald said in his postgame press conference that pushing the panic button won’t be constructive or “solve problems” with eight games still left on NU’s Big Ten slate. What’s next for the Cats in recovering from their disastrous September? Reflection, dedication on the practice fields and a growth mentality.

The process of turning the season around, in part, starts with identifying the issues that have led to the defeats.

The most obvious correction is ball security, a hallmark of NU’s brand of football. The offense has fumbled in the fourth quarter of each of the three defeats, and without an abundance of big plays on defense, the Cats have ceded the turnover battle to their opponent in all three games. 

Against Miami, a red zone fumble by receiver Malik Washington doomed an NU drive with the potential to open up the game for the Cats and give them the cushion they’ve lacked in their four games so far. RedHawk defenders misplayed a couple of would-be interceptions, and Washington’s second fumble sealed the defeat.

Explosive plays — whether given up on the defense or absent from the offense — have proven similarly damaging to the Cats’ hopes. 

NU’s defense held steady for most of Saturday evening and held Miami under 60 passing yards, but RedHawk running back Keyon Mozee tore a 66-yard rush up the right sideline to spark Miami’s 10-0 run across the final eight minutes. Fitzgerald cited drops, missed targets and failed one-on-one matchups as reasons why the Cats’ offense couldn’t break the game open with big plays of its own. In NU’s 34-31 win against Nebraska, those explosive plays on offense were a major reason the Cats came out on top.

“It just comes down to explosives and us taking care of the ball and just doing what we have to do to win football games,” junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski said. “This is not what Coach Fitz deserves, not what the defense deserved tonight, and it starts with me.”

Two of the team’s leaders, Hilinski and junior defensive back Cameron Mitchell, added their own insights into what the team needs to improve from their vantage point on the field.

Hilinski said the offense’s obsession with getting individual assignments right at the expense of hustle and tempo was a reason why the unit couldn’t find its rhythm, while Mitchell longed for intensity in the final minutes as a way to combat the Cats’ late-game woes.

“We’ve got to find a way to finish these games,”  Mitchell said. “I don’t think it’s a conditioning thing or a gas thing, we have to finish and find a way to fight.”

These issues were also present during NU’s previous two losses, though, and actually improving on those areas is different from simply identifying what went wrong. 

Fitzgerald doesn’t believe the Cats’ struggles stem from a flawed approach in practice, but rather the translation to gameday execution. NU’s coaches have emphasized protecting the football and winning one-on-one battles, for example, but neither priority came to fruition on Saturday.

“The guys are working incredibly hard, we’re just not executing on gameday for whatever reason,” Fitzgerald said. “What’s frustrating to me is what we saw today, across the board, is that it was exactly what we practiced.”

What more can the Cats do to adjust at this point? Hours after another demoralizing loss, even they don’t fully know.

Hilinski said that all of the Cats’ goals are “still in sight” with Big Ten play resuming next weekend and NU holding a 1-0 conference record. That’s true, but the Cats will have to find a lot of answers to the questions that have capsized their season, and quickly — a road game at Beaver Stadium to take on No. 14 Penn State is NU’s next challenge.

“We’ve just got to come in and have that mindset that we want to get better, that we actually want to turn this ship around, that we actually want to go win football games because if you don’t, then get the F out,” Hilinski said. “It’s as simple as that.”

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