The term “playing scared” is trite, and it implies that writers know something about the motivation and internal confidence of a team. We don’t, and saying that Northwestern is staring at a deflating 0-2 start because of a distracting offseason or a lack of established leaders is irresponsible. We have every reason to believe that Pat Fitzgerald and his team entered Saturday’s 23-15 bed shitter to NIU feeling that they belonged to win that game.
But the Wildcats are playing scared. Not in the obvious sense. If anything, as a downtrodden Deonte Gibson pointed out in the postgame press conference, the team overcommitted too often Saturday. But through two games, NU is scared to admit that the personnel losses it’s taken over the past few months are in fact rattling. The ethos established over one and a quarter thrilling seasons desperately needs an update, and there isn’t as much to lose as they think there is. It starts with deconstructing self-imposed expectations, and then acknowledging that rerouting direction involves admitting that there’s more to learn about this team.
I started thinking this not when Northwestern was getting manhandled on the front lines by a MAC team, and not when the offense stumbled to a scoreless first half. This all was inspired when Siemian went down and Zack Oliver started warming up on the sidelines.
As it turns out, Oliver hit Pierre Youngblood-Ary for a last gasp 54-yard touchdown on his second throw of the day. I don’t care much about that, or any listless potential comeback that was set up by one coverage breakdown. I cared that Northwestern didn’t see what it had in Matt Alviti, the one-time four-star recruit that would, in one way or another, drastically shake up Northwestern’s current offensive outlook.
I cared that Justin Jackson, already looking like one of the roster’s best talents, only got 12 carries, while last year’s spark plug Stephen Buckley didn’t get any. Stagnant Treyvon Green took 10 for 26 yards.
I cared that spring ball standout Jayme Taylor got two looks, that Ifeadi Odenigbo was sparsely used as the Wildcats struggled to disrupt the NIU pocket, and that Dan Vitale wasn’t used in play action when the team bewilderingly fell back on the I formation. When the team’s game plan of inside runs, short slants and flat checkdowns didn’t work, Northwestern didn’t get creative.
When good teams play like there’s a lot on the line and risks aren’t worth it, it’s being conservative. When bad teams, or in NU’s case, uncomfortably overwhelmed teams play like it, it’s being stubborn, bleak, and yes, afraid. The prospect of losing to NIU was so much more engulfing and macrocosmic than the actual loss was.
So what needs to happen going forward? I doubt the team needs to be more fired up. I’m skeptical that a shake up on the leadership council or in locker room rhetoric will do much, because that implies that Northwestern wasn’t already focused on football. What needs to happen is more inventive playcalling (obviously scrapping third-down draws would be a start), and more inspired rep allocations. The two-quarterback system that was so successful a year ago should be brought back. Is there that much to lose by sitting the slumping Trevor Siemian on a few drives? Not doing so implies that there’s a lot riding on Siemian, and there doesn’t have to be with a team that has reached its nadir. Second-level blitzes, which have been rare, should be welcomed too.
The Wildcats were painfully conservative when the program built up towering expectations that it wasn’t prepared to consistently meet. It ran two gut runs with the game on the line against No. 4 Ohio State, which feels eons ago. It’s still doing it, but the cameras of GameDay are long gone.
Now, let’s hope that Northwestern doesn’t play like 3-9 is worlds worse than 5-7 or even 6-6. It isn’t.