There are always hiccups at the beginning of the season. There is something of “ring rust” for every team. It is hard to come out of the gate perfect. Teams have to and do improve as the year goes on.
A lethargic start though is never a good sign. Finding the energy after a months-long buildup to the first game should not be a problem. Teams can play through mistakes but things generally trend in a positive direction. The good teams play opponents they can overwhelm with talent.
Northwestern is not a team that typically can get by on that. But the team has always had a reputation for playing disciplined and schematically sound football. Teams know they have a tough challenge to make Northwestern break its fundamental principles.
The first two weeks of the season have seen that erode. More than anything, that is why the Wildcats’ future looks so bleak. There is no early season energy and attention to detail. Mistakes, simple ones, are not getting corrected week to week (albeit in the small sample size of two weeks).
This is a team that struggled to run block with a stellar running back in Justin Jackson against a (No. 9-ranked) Illinois State. It was an offensive line that could not pass protect well either, forcing Clayton Thorson and Mick McCall to roll the pocket on seemingly every play as he fired 41 passes.
Northwestern’s defense was not much better. The team misses tackles. Linebackers run into each other. The discipline on both sides of the ball has dissipated.
Northwestern, because of its limitations in recruiting, has always had to outwork and outsmart teams. It sounds cliche, it being Northwestern, but it is true.
Their blocking schemes required mobility and speed. The defense required gap discipline and sure tackling. Northwestern plays conservative, sure, but they get off the field and do not beat themselves. These are part of the formula for Northwestern.
The Wildcats have struggled with all of these. And these basic tenets are what Northwestern has to find again quickly before its showdown with another struggling academic power in Duke on Saturday at Ryan Field.
The offensive line has struggled — Justin Jackson managed 39 yards on 11 carries as Northwestern all but abandoned the run and trusted sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson.
Thorson is better than he was last year. Even through his struggles in Saturday’s game, Thorson looked better. Still questions have to get asked when he completed only 17 of 41 passes and could not defeat a FCS defense. It does not raise a ton of confidence of him taking over a game and leading a game-winning drive.
His attempt to do that against Western Michigan in Week One ended in a devastating turnover that cost the game.
Northwestern no longer seems to have a schematic advantage. The receivers struggle to gain separation and get open and the Wildcats cannot seem to keep defenses off balance.
A struggling offensive line has that effect on an entire offense.
The defensive side is not much better. Anthony Walker has been something of a ghost in his first two games — Pat Fitzgerald chalked it up to trying to do too much in Week One, perhaps buying into his own hype — and Matthew Harris was called for three pass interference penalties in the loss to Illinois State.
The usually disciplined Wildcats have committed eight penalties for 90 yards. That came to roost especially against Illinois State when the team committed six for 70 yards. Many were drive killers like holding penalties as the defensive line overwhelmed Northwestern.
Northwestern has to spend its week of preparation for Duke getting back to basics. The kind of things the team should have worked on through training camp and at Camp Kenosha.
Of course no one knows exactly how those things play out until they go out and play. And the Wildcats found themselves struggling. And then struggling again.
These are not simple things for Northwestern to fix. They can be fixed. The Wildcats’ season can be saved — after all, they are 0-0 in conference play, but nobody is pretending 5-4 in the Big Ten with Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa on the schedule will be easy.
Talk to anyone and they will say Northwestern has never had more talent on the roster. The Wildcats are recruiting at unprecedented levels. There are big questions about why this is not translating to wins this year and wins consistently — going from 10 wins to back-to-back five-win seasons to 10 wins to this 0-2 start.
Those are big questions Northwestern has to come to terms with. There are fundamental questions about the program that continue to repeat year after year without resolution.
That evaluation must come after the season if these trends continue. An uninspired start to the season certainly raises those questions even further.
For now, Northwestern has to get back to basics to right the ship and prepare for that gauntlet ahead. Otherwise, it could be a very long season.