No excuses in Northwestern offseason

Northwestern pointed to injuries and misfortunes throughout 2013. In the offseason, the team will have no more excuses, writes Steven Goldstein.

It's astounding how much the narrative shifted with one win. Lose to Illinois, and continue wallowing in the apocalyptic, winless season; beat Illinois, and seemingly restore hope. There's a cathartic power to the last game of the year, and sloppy as it was, Northwestern won it. That changes the way we approach this offseason, if even slightly.

For now, it doesn't matter that the defense gave up 34 points to a shoddy Illini offense, nor does it matter that the Wildcat front seven gave up an uncharacteristic 185 rushing yards on just 32 carries. We'll forget that Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris allowed a combined 21 receptions for nearly 250 yards, because there was no press conference the Monday after, and no game to see if it would happen again.

Rather, we'll remember these things next fall, when this same set of players take on respectable Cal and Northern Illinois to start the season.

This is the problem with that cathartic last win: the on-field product ends on a high note, and we start to revert to the injuries and the misfortunes that plagued the season. When 2014 kicks off, the latter two won't be there. But the former, the on-field product, was obviously never good since Oct. 5, and any semblance of offseason momentum shouldn't change our perception of that. Nobody had to be carted off at Champaign, and aside from a freak touchdown in the first half from Steve Hull, there was no crazy bad luck or classic Northwestern collapse. With a relatively clean sheet, the Cats still beat a terrible team by three, and if a Mike Trumpy inside run on third down plays out like it's supposed to, they likely don't even do that.

Last offseason allowed us to dream about Northwestern's potential and embrace the possibilities of national prominence. This offseason, we have to compromise the injuries and the breaks with the fact that regardless of all that, the Wildcats were not very good, and still might not be very good after hitting the reset button. It's a tough things to come to grips with; if everyone returns healthy and Northwestern still drops early conference games at Penn State or vs. Wisconsin and Nebraska, the crutches we relied on in 2013 are gone.

Trevor Siemian will be back, after a full offseason to rest his injured heel and readjust his mind state. Venric Mark, Trevyon Green and Stephen Buckley will be back, too. But as exciting as that is, there's still one of the worst offensive lines in college football in front of them, and that entire O-line was healthy this year, save for Geoff Mogus. Tony and Christian Jones, great as they can be, are still woefully inconsistent. And you can't imagine the conservative playcalling changing all that much; more likely, the schematic changes occur after next year's huge senior class graduates.

It's the defense, the unit we praised for the final two months of the season, that actually loses the most. Damien Proby and Tyler Scott will be gone, and a front seven that was just 48th in the country in sacks says goodbye to two of its premiere players.

Right now, our lasting images of 2013 are Trevor Siemian going for more than 400 yards, and Christian Jones lunging out for that improbable touchdown. It's understandable for now, but those images likely aren't seen again come 2014, whether the team is fully healed or not.

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