There's something wrong with Northwestern

What's ailing the Wildcats? More than a Hail Mary, writes Steven Goldstein.

There's still something wrong with Northwestern. There are the injuries; an already ailing team lost Stephen Buckley and Nick VanHoose for the game Saturday. There's the horribly unimaginative playcalling; on a go-ahead goal line series, Northwestern went with three standard running plays for a total of three yards. But neither of those kept the Wildcats from being one play away from knocking off Nebraska on the road and earning their first conference win of the season.

There's still something else.

On fourth-and-16 with less than a minute to play, the Cats' secondary completely whiffed on an Ameer Abdullah dump off. With four seconds left at midfield, Northwestern's prevent defense failed to knock down a wobbling Hail Mary, from the Huskers' third-string quarterback to a freshman receiver with zero career touchdowns. Bo Pelini looked stunned. Kain Colter was crushed.

The Wildcats offered textbook examples on how to lose a game Saturday, from not converting on turnovers to pulling the sixth running back on the depth chart into the fold. They somehow still should have won, and it speaks volumes about a program that needs to make major evaluations this offseason. How do you justify losing a key conference game on a Hail Mary breakdown for the second straight year?

Part of it could still be an Ohio State hangover. Since losing what Northwestern built up as the biggest regular season game in school history, the Cats have lacked any semblance of confidence and look lost on both ends of the ball. A team so desperate for national identity failed to win the big game, and hasn't adjusted its mindstate almost a month later.

Part of it is coaching. Pat Fitzgerald says in every press conference that a lack of execution falls on him and his staff, and once again, he's not wrong. No, Fitz can't knock down Ron Kellogg's pass, but he and his coordinators shouldn't have even been in that position. Good teams don't punt seven times in a half after scoring three early touchdowns; decent teams score six after an interception puts the offense at the seven-yard line; seemingly only Northwestern allows a 49-yard Hail Mary to be tipped into the arms of a receiver. The plays need to be called differently, but the players also need to lead a different way.

And part of it has to just be a confidence issue. The current personnel doesn't have much real experience against signature opponents, and hasn't won many, if any, nailbiting games. Maybe this changes with improved recruiting classes, but right now, the Wildcats play painfully hesitant in the final few minutes because they truly expect the worst. They haven't experienced otherwise. It's the culture.

Strange and wrenching as it was, the Nebraska loss can't be all that surprising. Even when the season's been thrown out, there's still something else holding back any positive steps. Even when the game is handed to them, there's still something keeping the Wildcats from making it happen.

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