Northwestern loses to an FCS team; my column

“We’re not actually going to lose, right?”

I find it hilarious that the game-winning field goal bounced off the upright. On my minuscule phone screen displaying choppy BTN coverage, I almost tricked myself into believing that the ball had bounced back into play. For a split second, due to the perspective of the camera, it seemed that, at the very least, Northwestern would avoid the embarrassment of a loss. There was hope. 

Up until the last second, even the most emotionally damaged Northwestern fans surely held a glimmer of hope. The “we’re not actually going to lose, right?” sentiment held on throughout the entire second half, strongly reinforced by Austin Carr’s touchdown that put Northwestern up 7-6. Even when Justin Jackson went out and the offense stalled again, the defense had held off Illinois State for most of the second half. Even as Illinois State drove down the field to win the game, I remembered that Illinois State’s kicker had missed an extra point earlier.

For me, the reality that Northwestern was actually going to lose did not set in until that field goal clanked off the left upright and landed in play. I have since recognized the naïvete of my logic. I am, of course, relatively new to Northwestern sports. This year, when Inside NU produced some offseason content about the Northwestern fan experience, my first-year opinions of all the teams were fairly positive. I had not lived through any of the litany of truly catastrophic Northwestern sports defeats.

I know better now.

American college football is just a game. It says nothing about Northwestern as a university. It says very little about the character of the athletes, or the character of the institution. If you think Clayton Thorson is a bad person for losing a football game, that’s a bad take. Yet Northwestern’s atrocious, stupid and insipid performance feels like it should mean something. At least we can use this to judge the entirety of the Pat Fitzgerald era and project the next four years of Northwestern football, right? We can really use one football game this to control and understand the future, right? We’re not actually going to lose to Illinois State, right?

“How did we lose?”

I can say, without reservations, that this was probably the worst college football game I have ever watched. Mind you, I haven’t watched all too many college football games, and my emotional distress may still pale in comparison to that DeSean Jackson game from 2010 (hits head on desk repeatedly). I don’t need to tell you that Northwestern played very poorly. A 9-6 defeat to an FCS school is enough to know that Northwestern played poorly. Let’s rank the top ten contributors to this tire fire of a performance:

10. Auston Anderson – Justin Jackson went out with an injury late in the game. This was a massive cause for concern, and Northwestern finally caught a glimpse of what life without Jackson could be like. Anderson had 4 attempts, all of which came at crucial points of the game. He had a net gain of 8 yards. It’s not fair to penalize him too much, but Warren Long was ruled out for the game well in advance and he had a long time to prepare for this moment. On the final drive in which Northwestern failed to get a first down to ice the game, Anderson went nowhere.

9. Anthony Walker Jr. – I hope you haven’t been actively charting Anthony Walker’s draft stock in the past two weeks. After two no-shows against Western Michigan and Illinois State, I don’t hear anyone going on about Walker’s first-round potential. It still may be there, but the buzz has subsided considerably. I would say Walker played okay, but at times, Northwestern needed him to be the great linebacker from 2015 and it just wasn’t there.

8. Ifeadi Odenigbo – Northwestern’s Gibson/Lowry replacement had 1 sack. It was also his only tackle of the entire game. Odenigbo was mostly invisible again, and he would be higher on this list if the rest of the team hadn’t completely collapsed. Jake Kolbe is not a very good quarterback (watch that second INT again if you don’t believe me) and Odenigbo gave him all the time in the world to make up for it.

7. Sean Slattery – You may not know his name, but he is the man that kicked the game-winning field goal for Illinois State. This is a man that has “made 8-9 PAT attempts against the Delta Devils” on his roster card on the Illinois State website. Yes, making 8/9 extra points against Mississippi Valley State is considered a huge achievement for Sean Slattery. But credit to him, he came through in the clutch. GO DELTA DEVILS!

6. Pat Fitzgerald – Pat Fitzgerald probably should have called timeout and given Northwestern a little time at the end. Pat Fitzgerald probably should have game-planned a better offensive strategy against an FCS defense. In the end, Pat Fitzgerald probably should have done many things in this game, but there’s only so much you can blame a coach for. I can’t put him above 6.

5. Brock Spack – On the other hand, Brock Spack coached a damn good game against Northwestern. He wasn’t afraid to take chances offensively (even though they backfired miserably) because he knew that Northwestern couldn’t hurt him on the other side of the ball. He forced Northwestern to throw and the Wildcats could not. He repeatedly picked on the depleted and exhausted Northwestern cornerbacks. In the end, Brock Spack probably did many things to win this game, but there’s only so much you can credit a coach for. I can’t put him above 5.

4. Clayton Thorson – Clayton Thorson was not good in this game. He admitted it himself in the press conference. Thorson missed a few passes and was generally inaccurate, but he also found himself with almost no time to throw. Still, it was clear that Illinois State did not respect any medium to long-range passes from Thorson, and it paid off.

3. Jack Mitchell – To be honest, Jack Mitchell didn’t actually do that much to lose the game (other than, you know, miss the 33-yard field goal in the first half that would have helped tremendously), but I’m just so tired of being nervous every time an extra point or field goal is kicked in a non-pressure situation. Is that payback for not being stressed when Jack has to make clutch kicks?

2. Mick McCall – Remember when I said there was only so much you can blame a coach for? Nah, screw that, McCall had a bad gameplan and you can tell the entire Northwestern offense knew it. Just for a second, forget about Northwestern maybe having an ounce of creativity or creating a few different plays that Northwestern could audible to in the no-huddle offense. Forget having a plan to attempt to cover for Northwestern’s offensive line woes. Forget about all that. Let’s just focus on McCall’s insistence on the most vanilla playbook in college football.

When I got into college football, I expected creative and hyper-fast offenses with plenty of motion plays and zone-reads. Maybe I watched too many Chip Kelly Oregon highlights on YouTube, but I always thought college football was the zone for football experimentation and wild ideas. If you wanted to take 5 seconds between plays, you could. If you wanted to swap out quarterbacks on every downs (like that Texas/Notre Dame game), you could. It wasn’t the stagnant, ossified NFL, where going for it on fourth down was a breach of ethics. College football was open.

Then I watched Northwestern’s offense for two months. And then I was forced to watch it again and again and again and again and then again because I had to write a column about it. I’m not even ignorant that boring football can be effective. Alabama’s style is hardly “exciting”, but it works. What kills me is that Northwestern’s style is boring and it also doesn’t work.

College football is not a utopia. It is a prison.

1. The Entire Offensive Line – I wrote last year’s Inside NU offensive line player grades. I watched a lot of offensive possessions to come up with my conclusions. I thought I did a pretty fair job. Northwestern’s offensive line did not play well last year (see Bowl, Outback), but Saturday was something else.

There were moments in which Illinois State defenders ran unblocked into the backfield. There were moments in which Clayton Thorson had approximately 0.3 seconds to throw the ball before starting to scramble. There were 4 holding penalties at the worst possible times. It was, no joke, the worst performance by a Northwestern personnel group in the previous two seasons, especially when you adjust for competition. At least Northwestern’s wide receivers caught passes in previous games.

Blake Hance is still not a good left tackle! Connor Mahoney was atrocious. Brad North was also bad. Tommy Doles was mediocre! They eere all useless out there. The players looked strong enough to succeed, but there was no communication, no concept of play design. Sometimes, Northwestern would call a run play and the offensive line would just allow Jackson/Anderson to crash into a wall of defenders. What happened? How can you play football for this long and be this inefficient?

This may be payback for Northwestern’s total lack of cohesion on the offensive line last season. This current group is yet another iteration of that group of okay offensive linemen that entered 2015, but just with even fewer reps together. Brad North missed a large portion of last season. Tommy Doles just looks unready for college football (after how long in the program, again?). Mahoney, the veteran of the group, was not impressive for me last season. He was a part-time starter for much of the year, and he played for most of the game. Northwestern’s offensive line recruiting has tended toward quicker players in exchange for size and strength. Blake Hance, for example, is a converted tight end. Yet against a MAC and FCS defensive front, the entire offensive line has looked flat-footed and overmatched. How did this happen?

The solutions are endless, but the truth is simple. They can start by plugging in wide-open gaps and not making basic technical violations that lead to penalties and lost yardage. The loss of Ian Park and lack of any other respectable options on the offensive line left the current group completely out to dry. Even with the whole unit having a bad day, Fitz admitted that he didn’t have any suitable replacements to punish any mistakes from the offensive linemen. That goes back to recruiting. If you don’t have 6-8 playable offensive linemen on a college football roster, something is very wrong. Linemen get hurt. They’re big and can tire easily. To not have any substitutes on hand is just inexcusable and baffling. What good college football team doesn’t have one or two utility linemen to spell the starters in a game? Illinois State had enough bodies. Why didn’t Northwestern?

“Now what?”

Sports fans are, by nature, drama queens of the highest order. Historical perspective means nothing. Sports fans tend toward recency obsession. Long-term success is difficult. Getting fans to appreciate long-term success is even harder. 

In a sense, we are coerced by life to search for short-term escapes. With life essentially being a long-running struggle against death and misery, it’s only fair that sports allow us, for a brief second, to only think about the present. It’s the same thing with vacations, drugs and many aspects of religion. The dramatic response is all-too natural for the sports fan. It’s not fair for rational people to expect us to “plan strategically” when becoming a sports fan. It’s like asking someone to strategically plan their Sunday confessions. Sports, in essence, are an escape from perspective, a void in which true focus becomes possible. 

Randy Walker suddenly passed away ten years ago. Northwestern was left floundering in the wind. After eight games in 2006, Northwestern’s future seemed impossibly dark. In its last loss to an FCS team (before Saturday), Northwestern was beaten by double-digits to New Hampshire at home (although that team was coached by Chip Kelly). Northwestern blew a 38-point lead to Michigan State, the largest collapse in college football history, also at home. The team was destined to finish with a mediocre record and could only look forward a future with an unproven head coach and instability. 

What happened? The team did not fall into an extended collapse like Kansas. The team even avoided the long-term failure that has befallen Power 5 teams like Washington State, Purdue, Rutgers, etc. that seemed possible, even likely, at the time. To suggest that Northwestern football is doomed or destined to go winless for two seasons is probably premature. From a long-term perspective, the loss to New Hampshire was an embarrassing blip. 

Northwestern football endured. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen again, but it is worth trying to fit some long-term perspective into our brains, rather than sitting around blaming other people on the Internet. And yes, while the long-term outlook doesn’t excuse the team’s performance last Saturday, that doesn’t mean we should just ignore it completely. From a five-year perspective, Northwestern has been about the 50-60th best team in the nation by S&P. And while that is not good enough for the fanbase’s delusions of grandeur lofty expectations, it would likely take a subsequent three-year drop in performance to truly justify firing the entire coaching staff, no matter what the triggermen in the athletic department decide.

That’s not to say the loss to Illinois State wasn’t a complete disaster. It most certainly was. And while not the entire coaching staff deserves to be replaced, there are a few people whose seats should be very wobbly. 

CORRECTION: Thank to Ian McCafferty for schooling me on the performance of the offensive line. It was still bad, but he explained specifically how bad.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *