The Big Picture
Happy Monday Mourning everyone. As the co-workers inquiries in to what happened begin, I wanted to point anyone who might not have checked out LTP this weekend to visit the Sailgate recap here. Take 2 minutes and watch the video recap which will be on the Pat Fitzgerald Show. We also just received bonus Sailgate video which we’ll include this week which brings to life the incredible tailgate. Now, back to business.
The Wildcats should be a better team with Persa in the fold, but their limitations on defense are obvious. And for all the good things this program has done in recent years, these types of losses reinforce the perception that Northwestern can’t get to the next level. – Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com, 9/17
There it is in print. Our biggest fear memorialized on a website. Adam Rittenberg succinctly captured the collective sentiment of our fan base in two sentences. On a day when Ohio State would lose to Miami dropping them out of the top 25 for the first time in seven years and defending Big Ten c0-champ Michigan State got smacked around, the ‘Cats failed to capitalize on momentum once again. Adding salt to the wound, Illinois, everyone’s 2011 wildcard team, stepped up to upset Arizona State smothering their air attack and catapulted themselves in to the Top 25. But it gets worse.
All year long we’ve commented on how Northwestern has gained the lion’s share of CFB media coverage in Chicago. It was to the point in March where you expected to see more purple in print than even TTFSB. On the day we lost to Army, there were our in-state rivals getting the headline and NU being relegated back to the secondary story. I could just here Martez Wilson’s quote echoing in my head. He said after they crushed us at Wrigley last year “We proved we are Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Well, with heads hung low among the NU fan base, the fear is we’ve got two weeks to make some major improvements or we are headed down a path that could slide us back to fighting for any coverage. Talk is cheap. Well, let’s restate that. Our marketing team has done a wonderful job talking about NU and it is actually expensive. The positive messaging that has created a huge buzz in Chicagoland about the ‘Cats is the “talk” and all it takes is some early season apples to really challenge that return on investment.
Optimists will point to the fact our m.o. is to always drop a non-conference game we shouldn’t. They respond with the fact we always win a conference game or two we shouldn’t either. Even I was stunned to learn we were looking for our first back-to-back 3-0 start since the 1950s. That is remarkable (not in a good way). We’re going to spend quite a lot of this week analyzing and over-analyzing the loss to Army and transitioning to an absolute must win at #24 Illinois. Optimists will tell you that we are a program designed to play the underdog role and we all feel more confident as you can bet the Illini will be licking their chops after watching game tape this week.
Pessimists, or rather pragmatists, are already in hot debate over the Army loss. One contingent is pinning it in our defense. From the playcalling on “D” to the lack of tackling on the initial hits. Another camp is pinning it on the offense, claiming both the playcalling – for not stretching the “D” against a very weak secondary and pinning it on Fitz for believing that we’d become a great rushing team against a now apparently weak BC (0-3, lost to Duke) team and Eastern Illinois. Few have even discussed our special teams which was poor (punting, placekicking were awful) sans Venric Mark. Many are discussing the coaching and playcalling. The problem was that it was “D” all of the above. Plus, there were other factors which we’ll address in a second.
In the big picture, almost every Big Ten team has had either a bad loss or looked suspect in their wins. Wisconsin is the class of the conference. Nebraska and Illinois are a step behind but in the conversation. After that it is a big group of meh. Yet, when an Iowa loses to Iowa State (apparently not as bad a loss) or Penn State barely beats Temple or Michigan State gets clobbered by an average Notre Dame team you don’t hear fans talking about the PROGRAM taking a step back. When NU loses their seemingly inevitable non-conference game, we talk about the program taking a step back. We are hyper sensitive to this perception. However, having not really been a candidate for the upper tier since 2008, at some point you get to the point where you say until proven otherwise we are what we are – a competitive middle of the Big Ten pack team.
If there was one word to describe our team on Saturday (you sarcastics can have fun right here) it would be “tight”. Our “D” was overthinking. We weren’t reacting, we were robotic. Coaches spent 7 months prepping for this as they told us. I feel we were overloaded with think and not enough let it rip factor. On offense, we made some poor tactical decisions which were compounded by Colter’s bad day passing. However, I hate to point to individuals as I respect every one of them, but Jacob Schmidt on 3rd and long in the final drive is just making sense, especially considering a)Trumpy was moving the ball every touch and b)our offense is predicated on 3rd and 5 passes.
The momentum of having huge road crowds (BC, Army) and the potential poking our head above to 2011 upper tier status is the single biggest mark I have on our program. We’ve yet to prove we can consistently deliver a win when expectations exist. The BC expectations weren’t on our side. We delivered. Any time we get momentum and the team is not named Iowa, we seem to falter. Fans cringe at a line of us being favored. The bigger the stage the harder we fall. When we get ahead in our underdog ways (see: Penn State, Michigan State 2010) we get – yup, you guessed it – tight. The playcalling transforms in to ultraconservative mode. It feels as if the coaching staff is trying to prove to fans we can be something we’re not ( I realize this is ridiculous, but it FEELS this way). I think I speak for many of us when I have one message for the coaching staff: “Let it rip!”
I really don’t care if we lose to Illinois if we come to play, the defense flies around, we take calculated risks and the players play. Let the leash off of the guys and trust that the offense can come together. The WRs are starving for touches. Jeremy Ebert seemed like a guy who was having his first glass of water in the Sahara. Run the spread, pass a ton, isolate key matchups and be who we are. Clearly there is no reason to say the sky is falling. Most every Big Ten team has an apple of a game per year – even if they are wins. We are so sensitive to it, it sometimes feels like we psychologically make it a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s not all on the coaches, however.
All you need to do to see why we lost is re-watch the opening kickoff. Venric Mark got crushed and Army was letting it rip having a blast. We were flat and tight. Army was playing with nothing to lose. I knew it was over when Fitz went ballistic on the Campbell helmet to helmet penalty. He clearly was trying to create a spark. Other than Bryce McNaul and Brian Peters, no one really bit. I can’t understand how a Fitz-coached team, with good kids who seem to be underdog mentality guys, plays with so little passion. It was visibly clear they simply wanted it more than we did. A good friend told me he thinks that one of the limiting governors of our team is that we are TOO nice. We need to find a nasty level (albeit it clean). We’re all proud of the program and the way we represent ourselves off the field. However, in year six of the Fitz era, it is time we start seeing the discipline (ie. penalties????) and heart we TALK about so much take place on the field.
All is not lost, folks. The Illini are 3-0 and ranked #24. We as a fan base are likely thinking “thank you”. We can beat the Illini, there is no doubt in my mind. But we can only do so if the players find the passion that the coach has and the coaches call plays that reflect who we are as opposed to who we wish to be. I banked a ton on this season based on senior leadership and perhaps Dan Persa’s lack of playing to date has been THE factor in that leadership coming together on the field. Perhaps it is simply his 2010 skill that is biasing my expectations. I think we have a chance to have a GREAT season. We could also slide back in to mediocrity which would be devastating to me. Time will tell, but let’s practice some patience as the Illini game to me, with two weeks to prepare, becomes quite a big answer to the riddle of the 2011 ‘Cats. More to come all week long. I promise to get to the bottom of the Dan Persa medical redshirt eligibility this week as well.
Maclin Gets Kafka – Again!
The message boards and comments lit up last night as former ‘Cat QB, Mike Kafka was downright excellent in step-in duty for Michael Vick (injured 3rd Qtr concussion) in the Eagles close loss to Atlanta. The commentators raved about the former Northwestern QB and mentioned NU many times to all of our delight. However on the game make-or-break 4th down, former Mizzou ‘Cat killer Jeremy Maclin dropped a near perfect pass to end the game and thus getting Kafka for the second time – this time as his own teammate. Click here for the details.