The Wildcats weren't going to lose to Western Illinois.
The team looked disorganized and uninspired in its first two losses, and the injuries have been crippling. But Northwestern was not going to lose to Western Illinois.
It just acted like it was going to.
NU botched a fantastic opportunity Saturday. It could have experimented with new personnel, unused formations and riskier plays. But aside from a Miles Shuler reverse, the team was again frighteningly conservative and unimaginative, underlying the ridiculous notion that the Wildcats still think there's a lot to lose this season.
Trevor Siemian checked down to underneath receivers all afternoon instead of testing the vertical pass against an FCS secondary. Blitzes against an FCS O-line were seldom as well. And on multiple (!) occasions, Northwestern went with a gut run on third-and-two, got stuffed, and promptly went with another gut run on fourth-and-one. Sound familiar? It was the same apoplectic playcalling seen at the end of last year's Ohio State game, back when the program actually did have a reason to be afraid of losing.
There were third down throws to Treyvon Green and Jayme Taylor (not exactly the players you look to for yards after the catch) well before the first-down marker. There were the painfully obvious fourth-down dives; when Western Illinois faced a crucial fourth-and-two, the Leathernecks drew up a brilliant play action play.
If Saturday's game was as painful for you as it was for me, it likely wasn't because of the length of the game or the quality of the opponent. It was because a week before Big Ten play starts, Northwestern is still playing like it's petrified of the worst-case scenario, which at this point has already been achieved.
Many reporters on the beat pointed out the team's quick leash on Saturday. Defenders were benched after giving up a big play, while O-linemen were sat after jumping a snap. This team doesn't have the personnel to realistically compete with the better conference opponents this year, and it needs to start calling plays accordingly. Why is Justin Jackson still primarily running between the tackles? Why isn't Dan Vitale being exploited in play action? Why is Trevor Siemian still the undisputed starter?
Interestingly enough, the one bold personnel move the team made paid huge dividends. Dean Lowry was excellent when playing defensive tackle, and Ifeadi Odenigbo had one of the best single-game performances in recent program history as an every-down D-end.
I wrote about this two weeks ago, and despite harsh media criticism and a bye week to adjust strategy, NU still looks afraid. Changes need to be made to both Xs and Os and mindset. Otherwise, that fear of losing will become intensely defeating, and fast.