No matter how the x's and o's line up, no matter how well Dan Persa plays and no matter how many seniors are on the field, sometimes games come down to execution.
Talent isn't lacking for Northwestern; execution is.
This is the most talented team in the Pat Fitzgerald era. It has a Heisman Trophy-quality quarterback, an outstanding receiving corps, an experienced secondary and experience on both lines.
Yet sometimes talent isn't enough; you have to know how to win.
"We've got a good football team," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We can win a lot of games if we don't beat ourselves and that's what we did today."
The Wildcats didn't beat themselves in the traditional meaning of the word. They won the turnover battle, didn't commit any bad penalties and controlled the pace for much of the game.
Rather, it was mental lapses in the secondary, the inability to maintain momentum and a seemingly low confidence level that ultimately led to the Wildcats' demise.
On the surface, it's easy to see what lost the game. The secondary was absolutely abysmal, surrendering 391 passing yards, including 268 yards and three touchdowns to Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins.
Fitzgerald said he was "shocked" at how bad the pass defense was, and while that's likely what the media will dwell on in the week leading up to Michigan, what is most troubling is that everything else went so well and the Wildcats still lost.
Forget the secondary for a minute, and statistically Northwestern played an outstanding game. They should have probably won even despite the secondary.
Dan Persa was outstanding in his first game back, showing mobility in the backfield and throwing four touchdown passes, three to star receiver Jeremy Ebert. Even after Persa went out—for "precautionary reasons," as we would learn later—Kain Colter rebounded from a tough game against Army to lead the Wildcats to a touchdown and the lead, if only for a moment.
The run game was improved as well. Mike Trumpy, who was carted off in the third quarter with a sprained knee, had his best outing of the season and true freshman Treyvon Green led the team with 68 yards on the ground.
The defensive front turned in its best performance since the Iowa game last November and the linebackers looked improved, especially against the run.
One phase of Northwestern's game plan went wrong today, but the rest of the team played well. With such an inconsistent team, that can be expected every game—don't expect the front seven to play that well and don't expect the secondary to play that bad against Michigan.
Yet with so much good, the Wildcats still couldn't pull out a win. That's not a surface level problem that can be corrected in practice; it's a mindset that needs to be changed.
Northwestern has always prided itself in its ability to finish. It prides itself that it out-executes teams with more talent.
This year's team doesn't follow that formula, and as a result, it's sitting at 2-2 with tough games against Michigan and Iowa on the horizon.
This season could still be a success for Northwestern. For once, it has talent levels comparable to its top tier Big Ten peers.
But right now, the execution needs to improve, not the x's and o's.
This will be remembered as one of the most senior-laden, talented and experienced teams of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. But unless Northwestern learns how to win, none of that matters.