Commentary: Turning Things Around
by Jonathan Hodges

Because of all of the negativity expressed by 'Cats fans (especially over at the Rivals board - where I am taking an indefinite hiatus to wait out the negative vibes, as well as in my own commentaries the past 2 weeks), I felt a need to write a more positive writeup, especially since the loss to Duke does not signal a return to the dark ages, which one may believe after seeing a lot of what people are writing.


Going into this season, Wildcat fans were relatively optimistic, with the consensus pick being 7-8 wins on the season, even though NU was coming in off of a 4-8 2006 campaign.  The media picked Northwestern to go 6-6, at best, and as usual most saw NU at or near the bottom of the Big Ten rankings.  I saw 7 wins for the 'Cats on the year, with a possibility for 8, and 6 being the minimum (or else something is very wrong).  In terms of game predictions, many were expecting NU to blow out Duke and even I predicted a big win for the 'Cats in that game (plus, the betting line was 16.5 points in favor of NU).  Were these expectations unrealistic?

The fact is that NU is a college team - the players on the field are amateurs and are between 18 and 23 years old.  Northwestern happens to have a head coach and offensive coordinator who are just staring their second year at those respective positions and are both relatively young for someone holding those jobs (Fitz is still the youngest I-A/FBS head coach).  The Duke game was the first true home night game during Fitz's tenure at NU (last year the OSU game last year was a 2:30PM start, and the Miami OH game was an away night game), and it is admittedly a different atmosphere than a typical morning/early afternoon game at Ryan Field.

I'm not putting up excuses for the loss, but while NU should have been able to win the game, a loss is not the end of the world.  Most NU fans were disheartened that NU is the team that broke Duke's losing streak of 22 games - but the fact is that the Blue Devil streak doesn't hold a candle to NU's notorious streak.  Duke almost won last week against Virginia, if not for some gaffes, and last season lost to ACC Champ Wake Forest by a point (thanks to a field goal that was blocked), Miami FL by 5 points, and UNC by one point in a shootout.  They aren't a good team by any stretch, but then again they aren't that horrible, either.

Northwestern has lost win-able nonconference games in the past - in fact, as I have noted in previous commentary, each recent Big Ten championship season has featured such a loss.  The amazing part is how NU has responded to those loses - finding a way to bounce back in almost every case.  While all of us 'Cats fans would love NU to win out the nonconference schedule year in and year out and beat every team it is supposed to, a 2-1 record heading into Big Ten play isn't bad and matches NU's best showing in the past few decades.  And that is with a still relatively new coaching staff who is still learning as they go along.

Not a return to you know where

One loss is not a return to the dark ages.  Northwestern fans have been fretting about this after every loss since the win over Notre Dame in 1995 that kicked of a new era in Wildcat football.  Despite some down seasons (1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2006), since 1995 NU has 3 Big Ten titles, 6 6-win seasons, 5 bowl appearances, no seasons with less than 3 wins (the last occurrence was in 2002) and an overall 70-75 ( 0.483) record during that period.  Obviously NU fans want to see the 'Cats take the step to the next level - which would be consistent winning and bowl appearances - but I will not be disheartened by results consistent with what Northwestern has experienced over the past decade or so.  Over the past 2 years some of the toughest losses have been close ones - NU obviously was one play away from beating Duke, lost to MSU by 3 last year, and played in a few more games where NU had a legitimate shot until near the end (Nevada last year, Michigan).

Learning and Development

College football is all about learning and development.  This is not pro football where fans are paying the players and expect wins.  This is where the players are given a chance to develop as people, learn, and also improve their football skills.  Northwestern's coaching staff is also in a learning position as they still do not have the same experience as their counterparts at virtually every other school in the country.  Coach Fitz will learn, and unfortunately will have mistakes to learn from.  It would be unreasonable to expect a well-seasoned veteran coach out of a guy who, just over a year ago, was the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator - while increasing in responsibility was still not a large decision maker in how the team was run and how in-game strategy decisions were made.  OC McGee was going to be mentored by Coach Walker after Dunbar left, as he had not had prior coordinator experience, but unfortunately the loss of Coach Walker left him as the most veteran offensive mind in the NU coaching ranks.  He is still learning his way along, and it wasn't until half way through last season that he had a stable quarterback situation, which played a large part in NU's offensive troubles.

This Season and The Future

I expect the 'Cats still to achieve at least 6 wins this season, although I wouldn't count on it being easy.  I am still in full support of Northwestern's decision to go with Fitz as the head coach - and it is perfectly reasonable to expect some time before he performs at his capabilities.  He still provides the integrity, drive, and ideals we look for in the leader of the Northwestern football program - and his strategic and preparation skills are things that will come with time.  Fitz has proven that he can be an effective game planner - look at every win over the past year and a half and also some of the close loses where NU had a legitimate shot at winning.  In a few of those games - Miami OH, EMU, Iowa, and Illinois last year plus Northeastern this year - NU was in control by the game's end and for a majority of the game (especially on defense).  Obviously there is room for improvement but that's what developing is all about.

I realize that all NU fans were disheartened and probably just plain angry after the 'Cats loss on Saturday night - I know I lost some sleep over it - but we must all realize that this isn't the end of the season and that there are 9 more chances for NU to go out there and win this year and that the Wildcats need our support and loyalty.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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