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Northwestern Wildcats learn their early season lesson. . . again

For the second straight year, Northwestern is searching for answers after an early season struggle and defeat. It is a pattern that is concerning for the program.

Jared McGee, Northwestern Wildcats, Pat Fitzgerald

Pat Fitzgerald has the routine down at this point.

After wins, he tries to keep everyone level headed. The team made some mistake (surely) he could point out and there would be tougher games to come. There is always another game to prepare for so you can never get too proud of yourself.

After losses, he puts the blame on himself. He says the coaching staff needed to do a better job coaching the team up and putting players in better position to succeed. There are adjustments to be made.

It is a state of never being satisfied.

Coaches though are zero-sum people. Their jobs are assessed on whether they win or lose every Saturday.

And so it is with this backdrop that the words said Monday at the Niccolet Football Center feel a bit hollow. Fitzgerald was saying the same thing a year ago after a shocking Week Two loss to Illinois State.

The opponent Saturday was a bit better, but the 41-17 loss was no less shocking. Like that loss to Illinois State a year ago, the Wildcats were manhandled along the offensive line and completely abandoned the run. Clayton Thorson looked tentative and forced into a one-dimensional game plan that a hungry defense took advantage of.

Every player seemed to recognize the slow start last year and vowed not to let it happen again. Here they are two weeks in and it has happened again.

And the refrain from players and coaches feels the same:

“From my point of view, we’re in a state of heightened urgency,” safety Kyle Queiro told Louie Vacchar of Wildcat Report on Monday. “I think many teams that are put in this situation could potentially be in a state of panic, but we just have to do what we do, just do it better and harder.

“This is going to be a testament to the kind of football team that we are, with this opportunity to respond. I think being able to respond is one of the best indicators of the maturity level of a team. So I think you’re going to have your answer pretty soon.”

The only thing that seems clear right now is that Northwestern has to snap to attention if it is going to make good on those early season Big Ten promises. The Wildcats truly believed they could compete for a Big Ten West division title. That will not happen if the team struggles as it did through the first two weeks.

The only good news is that the Wildcats are 1-1 overall, but have not played a Big Ten game yet. There is still time to fix things. But the Wildcats have only one more game before the games start counting in two weeks against the Badgers.

The focus is wholly on Saturday night’s date with Bowling Green. The Wildcats will have to show something.

But the growing trend raises the questions for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff: Why has Northwestern looked so poor in these early season games? Are Fitzgerald and his staff a little too conservative with their game plans in these early season games? Do they not gain confidence in their players through camp?

Those are the going theories. But the trend is undeniable. The Wildcats have faced some kind of disappointment in early season games for the last several years.

In Pat Fitzgerald’s first eight years, the Wildcats went 27-5 in nonconference play, including going 22-2 from 2008-13. Northwestern played a fairly challenging non-conference schedule (no marquee, ranked teams, but still some power conference teams to mix in with the MAC and FCS foes) but they usually came out swinging.

Things changed after that disastrous five-win 2013 season following the Gator Bowl victory. Like everything else with the program, everything seemed to change after that Ohio State defeat on Saturday night.

Since 2013, the Wildcats have gone 7-3 in non-conference play, including a 2-2 offering in 2014 and last year’s frustrating 1-2 non-conference run. That included season-opening losses to California in 2014 and to Western Michigan last year.

The raw record has not been good, but even dating back to that Kain Colter-led 2012 team, Northwestern never came out sharp to open the season. The only time they did was that breakthrough victory over Stanford that kickstarted a surprise 10-win season.

It always seemed like Northwestern was starting off a bit more conservative against these seemingly “lesser” opponents, believing they can line up and just mow them down, hiding any bigger wrinkles on both ends for later. That might be an unfair characterization, but these slow starts keep happening and the same complaints keep appearing — little misdirection on offense and few blitzes on defense.

Since it has happened the last few years, there is an undeniable and concerning pattern. Especially since those years have coincided with Northwestern’s dearth of bowl games — just two in the last four years.

Everyone has waited for Northwestern to turn that proverbial corner. Taking care of business comfortably in non-conference is seemingly a good way to prove that. Once again, the Wildcats have struggled to do that.

Not only have they struggled, but for the second straight year, they have taken some bitter defeats. And done so in a way that raises concern for the Big Ten season. This was not the start Northwestern wanted.

There is no getting it back now. When the Wildcats prepare to open next season with Purdue, perhaps the strategy will change with the team opening against a Big Ten opponent.

The poor starts and the poor, seemingly uninspired play to open these games indeed falls on the coaches. Considering the expectations Northwestern set for itself this year, it seems this slow start is putting the complete breaks on the optimism for the rest of the season.

It seems like Northwestern got its wake up call. There are no excuses for another slow start or unfocused effort Saturday night — especially considering it is the first game with students back on campus.

NU can turn around in one week. The Wildcats will need it to restore some confidence before Wisconsin.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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