Don't panic about the future

You can panic about another seemingly lost season. But NU's one turn away from getting back on track.

It’s incredible how different a single program can look from year to year. In 2012, everyone loved Northwestern football and for good reason.

Every criticism of the current team does not detract from the success of the Gator Bowl season. It would be an unfair expectation to expect every season to be good.

Crazier, that team followed the exact same formula as now. We complain about the “lack of change,” but this identical strategy — both in recruiting and style — worked so well in the right circumstances.

There’s no reason to excuse the current team from its listless, horrible and undisciplined play. The Northern Illinois loss scarred the program, and even worse, ended in a punch from one of America’s most “admirable” teams.

But that’s it: They’re bad right now. The situation is “dire.” This is not from some coaching oversight. Fitz not punting would never have changed the outcome from yesterday. The gut runs on 3rd-and-short can’t hide an average quarterback, a porous O-line and the age-old secondary breakdowns.

In fact, you could argue they’ve been much more creative in some ways. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall — for all the shit thrown at him — already incorporated three running backs including two true freshmen. (And one trick play: gasp) Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s unit has been “okay” at the very least in most games of the 1-9 slide.

So I’ll stop looking so far into it. The players deserve criticism for every one of these performances. But you can’t rule out this program because they can’t possibly be this bad. Not even the greatest cynic could argue that this is a “1-9 team.”

I’m not going to pull out the whole laundry list of positives: Justin Jackson, Matthew Harris, Solomon Vault, even Pierre Youngblood-Ary, etc. Every team has good players and the current set does not match the Colter-Mark days.

Still, this is a similar collection of talent from the days when they won 10 games. There are no five-star talent guys — perhaps aside from Justin Jackson the demi god. They have pretty good players across the board who are capable of doing much better than this.

Let’s not lie: We loved the Gator Bowl team. They kept every game close and nothing can be looked back upon as a fluke. They really were top-20. After the win in Jacksonville, I wrote about the defensive leadership that anchored the 10 wins. I raved about David Nwabuisi, who’s still my favorite player from my four years here. I thought Fitz was as confident and assured as any coach in the country that season.

(Interestingly, in my freshman year when I wasn’t covering the team, I wrote a Facebook status after the Texas A&M bowl loss that read something like: “At least we have Fitz.”)

That was only two years ago. The same coaches were in place. Many of the impact players stayed to oversee this nightmare. What I’m arguing is not that we should assume some better future. Any fan can criticize the results and the performance of just about any player and coach out there.

But, realistically, it’s hard to rule out NU in the future. Without citing intangibles, you can still pretty safely say that this team has no clue how to win football games. Fitz could very feasibly shove it in our faces next season with the right turns and the right luck.

They have the wrong collection of talent right now. To be frank, they need a better quarterback and needed to evaluate O-line prospects better in past seasons.

This is not to deny that Fitzgerald recruited what is arguably his best class ever in 2014. As someone pretty well versed in recruiting, I thought he was brilliant this past January and February. He saved a class that had all of the de-commitments. One of his late steals was current factor Xavier Washington

And among those, Jackson, Vault and Blake Hance are future standouts from that young class. You also have to hope that either Clayton Thorson or possibly redshirt freshman Matt Alviti will turn into something more polished than Trevor.

But what are they supposed to change? Punts? Attitude? Locker room culture? Fitz and his staff can be defined as “stable,” which is especially risky when the team fades so quickly. It still contributed to past success. That goes beyond 2012, and includes the combined 17-9 record from ’08-’09. True, judge him on the current situation rather on the past, but it’s still premature to question Fitzgerald’s future here.

With this formula, they have to hope recruits turn out well. They have to hope for a few stars, or someone along the lines of a Kain Colter or of a Venric Mark. For a team like Northwestern, we can all admit that the wins and losses are chalked up to the proverbial “little things.” This team looks like it’s already fading, yet similar Wildcats teams did just fine. Changes do not mean “coaching changes” or “bench everyone.” They mean that NU needs to figure out a way to win, and fast.

No one can excuse this season. Panic about it.

No one can predict the future. Don’t panic about that.

The formula worked before. And surely, that can work again.

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