The Wildcats had five new defensive starters, some due to injuries and some due to trying to find the best mix of players.
"Well we're trying to find combinations; not necessarily demoting guys but putting them into roles that might spark them better," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "The number one motivator in the world is to watch. It's called the bench. That's not a threat, it's just how we're going to get better."
This week is the first time that Fitzgerald has called out his players for their disappointing play—at least indirectly—and while there seems to finally be a sense of urgency, it came way too late in the season.
"We're still trying to find that perfect mix of guys," safety Brian Peters said. "Sometimes you've got to get some experience to get that perfect mix of guys."
Finding the right combinations and working on communication is something you do in spring practice and fall camp, not in the eighth week of the season.
However, while Fitzgerald contends that it's just a lack of execution each week, the problem with this team could be its mentality from the beginning. Everyone told this year's unit that it was the best team of the Fitzgerald era, and it makes you wonder if that hype had anything to do with such a miserable start.
Fitzgerald certainly bought into the hype at media day this fall, saying that he hopes his team "doesn't aspire to play in the Pizza City Bowl." Now the Wildcats will have to pull an upset over Nebraska or Michigan State just to make the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl or the TicketCity Bowl.
Just as the media wrongly anointed the Wildcats as a sleeper in the Big Ten, it's not fair to jump to judgment on NU's work ethic heading into the season. However, after the Iowa loss, a number of players pointed to a lack of focus, which is atypical of Northwestern squads.
But lack of focus, along with Fitzgerald's favorite line—"lack of execution"—isn't the only problem. Maybe this team just isn't that good.
Dan Persa is an outstanding quarterback, but he hasn't been the same dual-threat QB that he was last year ever since his injury. Kain Colter is a dynamic player, but he hasn't proven that he can pass.
The running backs have been plagued by injuries, but they didn't have very big expectations anyway.
Both lines have struggled greatly, despite having so much experience, and the secondary's horrendous struggles have been well-documented.
The biggest mistake made this year by the coaches, media and fans was assuming that experience was synonymous with good.
Northwestern's offensive line wasn't that good last year, so why would one more year help that? The same goes for the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary.
That's not to say this team wasn't capable of making a January bowl—it did with similar talent in 2009—but it isn't good enough to lose focus and still put together a decent season.
However, unlike that 9-3 Outback Bowl team, this team didn't play with a chip on its shoulder, and that ultimately cost NU the 2011 season.
"If you look at our performance tonight, it was a tale of ‘what-ifs,'" Fitzgerald said. "We had chances in second half to do what winners do."
Winners play consistently and play with an emotional edge. And for a team and coach typically full of heart and emotion, that edge has been surprisingly lacking this year.
There are still five games to play, but this year is essentially over. The best thing Fitzgerald and company can do is try to regroup for next year and find that emotional and fundamental edge.
Because without the proper focus, Northwestern can never be great, no matter how much everyone says it can be.