Balance key to 'Cats rebound

Sylvan Lane on the pressing issues Northwestern football faces.

Pat Fitzgerald stood behind a podium in a makeshift pressroom with a white drop-tile ceiling last Saturday. There might not have been a more fitting place to deliver an obituary for a lost season.

After thanking his seniors and lauding his team's resilience and dedication, Fitz delved into just how a year that figured to end in Orlando, Tempe, Tampa or maybe even Pasadena was capped off with his team's first conference win in its last game of the season.

Naturally, you can't separate the disappointing end from the promising beginning. Hindsight is 20/20, but Fitz said after the Illinois game that he knew the expectations of this program would be challenging ones to satisfy.

"You're going to be the most overhyped team in the country because you won a bowl game. That's what happens," he said. "Everybody thinks it's the same team outside the program, but you and your staff and your players are the only guys that know."

There's plenty of time to figure out why Northwestern wasn't able to live up to the hype that brought GameDay to Evanston and a No. 16 ranking to the Wildcats. Offseasons are an exercise in retrospection, and until spring practices start up, that's what we will be left to do. But moving forward, what can Northwestern do to make sure seasons like this never happen again, or at least not to this degree?

Simply put, it all comes down to balance. This goes far beyond balancing passing with running, or conservative playcalling with aggressive. It's more than just making sure offense, defense and special teams all achieve at uniformly excellent levels, though that is the ideal result. It's about creating a sustainable, reliable system that can be adapted to whatever adversity – however anomalous – this team may face.

The team's overly conservative playcalling has been one of the biggest points of contention for the media and fans all season long. Northwestern's coaches have justified it by pointing to their depleted personnel and claiming they must adapt their plays to the players they have remaining, even it if it means narrowing the playbook.

The problem is, the coaches tried to fit square pegs into round holes to compensate for these injuries, throwing an intricately but strictly constructed offense out of whack. You simply cannot run an offense built for Kain Colter and Venric Mark with Trevor Siemian and Mike Trumpy and expect it to be just as effective.

Instead, Northwestern's coaches must create a system that can be adapted to its players, not one that forces its players to adapt to it. This in turn will provide balance to the Northwestern offense and allow the Wildcats to mitigate the effects of key injuries. Fitzgerald said after the Illinois game that he and his staff will need to fundamentally reevaluate many things over the months ahead.

"We've got a ton of work to do. We've got to look at what we've done schematically, first and foremost," he said. "We've got to look at what we've done fundamentally—teaching-wise—and we've got to look at what we've asked our guys to do."

There are plenty of necessary adjustments to be made over the course of the offseason, but part of providing balance to a team haunted by in-game instability is building a broader and stronger foundation through recruiting. Even without Dareian Watkins, the Class of 2014 is loaded with promising talent. That said, the class is only 12-men strong as of now, and doesn't figure to get much bigger.

Fitzgerald prides himself on his program being a beginning, not an endpoint, and rightfully so. The emergence of true freshman Matthew Harris helped shore up one of Northwestern's weakest positions in recent history with a potential future All-Big Ten or All-American, and his ascent can appeal to recruits looking to make an immediate impact.

If Northwestern can find this balance, jumping from 6-7 to 10-3, and then back down to 5-7 can become a relic. Even if the following seasons aren't as illustrious as 2012 was, even if the records and wins aren't as pretty, the program on whole can find solid footing upon an already strong foundation. And if it trips up again, it will be much easier to make the fall shorter.

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