According to Pat Fitzgerald, the sky isn't falling.
That's a hard sell these days in Evanston, as the Cats have opened Big Ten play with four straight losses in a season that started with such high hopes and high expectations. A strong showing in a loss to Ohio State has been followed up with three lifeless performances against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, that latest defeat a 17-10 one in overtime Saturday in Iowa City.
But, while there's reason for frustration, Fitzgerald says there's no reason for alarm.
"We've given ourselves an opportunity to win the last two games, we just haven't made the plays down the stretch. That's disappointing. And you've got to use that frustration as fuel," Fitzgerald said during his weekly press conference Monday. "And if you do that and you choose to have the right attitude, you stay the course, good things will happen. We've got a third of the season left. In our place the sky isn't falling. It's sunny out. So you just keep grinding, and that's what you do."
The reason for the Chicken Little approach from fans and media stems from the complete 180 this team has pulled. One that was piling up the points in four non-conference wins has slipped to .500 thanks largely to an offense that not only can't find the end zone but can't do much of anything, particularly when it comes to protecting the quarterback and taking care of the football.
Certainly injuries have played a key role, with running back Venric Mark missing nearly the whole season, save his solid performance in that game against the Buckeyes. And quarterback Kain Colter has also been banged up, missing the majority or entirety of three different games, including a pair on this current skid.
But injuries can't explain it all. They can't explain the turnovers, they can't explain the penalties, they can't explain the sheer lack of execution on the offensive side of the ball.
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Last season, the Wildcats won 10 games. This year, they'll be fighting for bowl eligibility down the stretch. But getting closer to qualifying for the postseason, Fitzgerald said, can turn things around in a hurry.
"You look at the difference between this year and last year, the ball bounced a little bit differently for us a year ago. We stayed healthy. We're just fighting right now. We're fighting and scratching and clawing to find a way to win, and that'll cure a lot of ills," he said. "It'll cure your attitude ills, it'll cure a lot of issues that you have from a stand point of finding a way to win.
"I'd love to go back and be injury-free, but you don't get that choice. Right? I mean that would be the only thing I would change. And all that is is an excuse. That means we haven't coached the guys well enough to take the next step when there are opportunities called upon them. That's on us as coaches. That would be the only thing that I would change, but you don't get a do-over on that."
So why isn't the sky falling in Evanston? Fitzgerald said his team's been close to victory, and that's true. A couple plays here and there in the games against Minnesota and Iowa, and this could be an eyebrow-raising winning streak rather than a jaw-dropping losing streak. But there's no avoiding the fact that the Cats are playing quite poorly.
"The guys watch the tape, and they see how close we are, they see the opportunities that we squandered," Fitzgerald said. "Multiple possessions across the 50-yard line in the last two games with no points, that's big. Five huge turnovers in the last two weeks have really cost us. They've cost us possessions, they've cost us points, they've put our defense out there in tough situations. And we just can't do that. We can't do that and expect to win, and we can't get five penalties in times where there shouldn't be penalties. You just cannot do that and expect to win games when you're playing teams that are as hungry to win as you are."
If the games against Minnesota and Iowa were struggles for Northwestern, then the next three weeks — at Nebraska, home vs. Michigan, home vs. Michigan State — will be the make-or-break stretch for the Cats. It's pretty simple: If they lose all three, not only will a seven-game losing streak be a real ugly black eye, but a bowl game will be out of the question.
That's a drastically different situation than the Cats were in when this nightmare of a month started, and there's only one way to get things back on course: Play better.