Is losing every game you've played since classes started just a tough stretch? Is averaging six points per game in conference play the result of a few bad breaks? Is showing an unwillingness show any semblance of faith in your offense just fighting through adversity?
If those answers are unsatisfying for you, then pat yourself on the back for not buying into the excuses Northwestern has offered for its abysmal play this season. Yes, there have been injuries, and yes, there have been a few unlucky plays. But the most galling part about this season is not how ineffective the Wildcats have been, but how unwilling the coaching staff is to try and fix it.
While the team itself has some inherent flaws, Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall's absurdly conservative and illogical playcalling is what's really held this team back from salvaging even a sliver of positivity from this lost season.
We've railed on Fitzgerald for punting when the Wildcats are in better position on the field than the scoreboard, and for the obscene amount of gut-runs on 3rd-and-1 or 4th-and-run. Saturday's loss to Michigan State was replete with screens to Tony Jones, option runs with Mike Trumpy and other moves that would make Kirk Ferentz look like Les Miles.
After the game, Fitz said that this team is as beat up as any he's coached before, and that it hasn't been able to win close games and negate those bad breaks because it lacks personnel. Even so, he put the blame back on himself and his coaches.
"We have to do a better job as a staff. I think we've not done a great job as a staff because the next guys who had to go in weren't able to continue playing at the level the last guys were playing at," he said.
Later on, Tyler Scott told reporters injuries aren't the cause of this team's troubles, but even if they were, what does it say when the head coach admits he and his staff aren't doing what they need to do to make sure the players succeed?
The credo of Northwestern playcalling is "Players—Plays—Formations." The idea is if you put the best players on the field, draw up an effective play that accentuates their talents and put them in right formation, you'll succeed. So why has Northwestern used the same players running the same plays in the same formations week after week, each culminating in a loss?
Why does Northwestern run the same option with Trevor Siemian and Mike Trumpy—a passing quarterback and a power running back—that only works as long as the other team doesn't adjust to it? Why does Northwestern insist on throwing screen pass after screen pass to Tony Jones, and then replace him with 6'5" Kyle Prater? Why does Northwestern insist on running Treyvon Green up the middle in a spread offense?
The answers are far from clear, and the situation is even more confusing when you take in account how poorly Northwestern has played this year. Playing to win vs. playing not to lose is one way of looking at it, but some teams are generally more conservative by character. For Northwestern, it's matter of refusing to change a pattern that's only led to disappointing losses and hiding behind injuries and flukes to avoid addressing it head on.
The Wildcats have not won a game since September. They only thing they've done to change that is demote a struggling cornerback and strip a senior punter of his job the week before senior day.
It really makes you wonder how far this team fall before anything is done to stop it. Instead, as the team plummets to rock bottom, it looks like it's just bracing itself for impact.