Injuries no excuse for fallen Wildcats

Saturday's loss to Minnesota can't be pegged on injuries, writes Steven Goldstein. There are no excuses going forward as Northwestern comes to grips with a disappointing season.

Before Saturday, the season was still salvageable. The momentum of College GameDay and the confidence seen during nonconference play was certainly gone, but there were still only two losses, one a hard-fought battle with the fourth-ranked team in the country, the other a potential outlier in the one of college football's most unforgiving venues.

After a 20-17 loss to Minnesota, salvageable isn't in the vocabulary; the scenarios of winning the Legends division are retired until next August.

How do you come to grips with an 0-3 start? The season may have been overhyped to begin with, but it was never supposed to be like this. 5:03 is turning into 1:05:03 and counting.

When things get as out of hand as they are in Evanston right now, the easiest thing to do is to blame what lies beyond control: injuries.

After staying healthy for practically the entire 2012 season, Northwestern's lost its two biggest playmakers on the outside. Kain Colter's absence continues to ravage the Wildcat passing game, which has tanked from imaginative to predictable in the past three weeks, while missing Mark has killed the run. After Treyvon Green dominated September, Northwestern has averaged only 77 rushing yards in its three October losses. No Sean McEvilly and Daniel Jones hits the Cats at their two most vulnerable positions as well.

But even without some of their brightest stars, nothing should have been beyond the control of Northwestern Saturday. The team was loose all week and returned to its home turf to host a mismatched Golden Gopher team that had beaten the Wildcats just once since 2005. This was the ideal way to shake a losing streak, and no matter who was hurt, Northwestern should have had no problem winning this game.

Play calling and personnel use were poor again. Pat Fitzgerald continues to put blame on his staff for not making adjustments or getting his players in the right situations, and it's not lip service anymore. Stephen Buckley put Northwestern on the board with four carries for 54 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter. He had just five touches for the rest of the game, while the far slower Mike Trumpy saw more looks on screens.

Treyvon Green was averaging seven yards per carry as a starter; without Mark, he saw another day of underwhelming work. And coming off the worst game of his career, Trevor Siemian was forced to throw the ball 46 times Saturday, most of which came in pro-style sets and obvious shotgun formations. Are coaches seeing something we're not, or are they struggling this much to adapt with unexpected losses?

Defensively, Northwestern had a chance to get the ball back, with three timeouts and more than two minutes to go after the failed onside kick. Minnesota threw the ball just 14 times, but the Cats failed to make any adjustments, and were beat on inside runs yet again before Philip Nelson iced it with an eight-yard scramble. No decent team is losing on a scramble from Philip Nelson, especially not one with an athletic front seven and two of the best linebackers in the conference.

Colter and Mark may not be around for the foreseeable future, and they certainly won't be around next season, when Siemian, Buckley and Green will head the offense much like they did on Saturday. Perhaps we're seeing a slow shift in culture, one that gradually attempts to figure out life without two speedsters on the edge.

Maybe we're seeing a coaching staff completely baffled with midseason adjustments, or a team unable to match preseason hype with tougher opponents.

Of course, we could've just given too much credit to begin with, the excitement of the 2013 season overhyping Northwestern's shoddy O-line, underachieving wideouts and unproven secondary. Northwestern was desperate for national prominence, although it expected to do it in its style and tempo. Now, with three losses on primetime TV, the Wildcats can't stubbornly cling to what was expected, or use players on crutches as a crutch. It's time to switch things up strategically and mentally. Northwestern's fans have already done the latter.

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