Where Northwestern Football Has Gone Wrong in 2021


Move over 2019, as it appears we might have a new “worst Northwestern football team of the Pat Fitzgerald era” in the making. No team needed a bye week more so than the Wildcats, who have tomorrow off and an extra week to prepare for Rutgers.

In losing 56-7 at Nebraska last Saturday night, the Cats surrendered the most yards (657) ever allowed in the 16 years that have comprised the Fitz era. It was also the most points allowed in 11 years (2010, when Wisconsin hung a 70 burger on NU the week after the Wrigley Field one end zone only game).

We’re only five games into this season, but this Northwestern football team already has three games of 500+ yards allowed this season- that’s more than the previous 3 seasons combined. Last week also saw the largest margin of victory ever, for Nebraska in a Big Ten game, and the 434 rushing yards the second highest single game total in Cornhuskers history.

Given all you know about Tom Osbourne, the wishbone, Tommie Frazier, Ahmad Green etc. etc. etc. this statistic really says something.

Say what you want about the quarterback situation, and there are certainly a lot of issues with the passing attack and the offense, but this team’s biggest weakness is glaring.

Stopping the run has been the key to success for Northwestern in recent years. It’s not sexy or fun or interesting by any means, but if you want to know why Fitzgerald has led his program to two of the last three Big Ten West division titles, start there.

Northwestern football is all about stopping opponents from being able to run the ball, not making mistakes on offense, heady QB play and watching/inspiring their opponents into making self-destructive mistakes when they have the ball.

That’s the formula for success and that’s why you always hear Fitzgerald talking about “self-inflicted wounds” in press conferences. This season has season too many of them, but at least there is time to still get it right; at least somewhat.

While Fitz’s teams have often started slow in September and finished strong in November, the 2021 edition will really have to grow and develop in a hurry. That loss at Duke was abysmal, but the bottom fell out and a new nadir was reached in Lincoln. The first two road efforts were catastrophic, and this team still has to go to #9 Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.

And at least they have now seemingly found and settled on their offensive backfield, which should provide some sense of stability. Like their neighbors the Chicago Bears, Northwestern now has the right guy starting quarterback, even if it took them until mid-season to figure that out.

pat fitzgerald

But NU isn’t going anywhere this season unless they figure out how to stop the run. Everything else flows from that. It’s the first and most important step to Northwestern football finding success.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune.

He co-hosts the After Extra Time podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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