What a difference a couple of weeks can make.
On Oct. 5, Northwestern played Ohio State as an undefeated team ranked No. 16 in the country. After that night's hard-fought loss, it's been two embarrassing defeats: a 35-6 blowout loss at Wisconsin and a somewhat shocking upset in a 20-17 loss to Minnesota this past weekend.
Monday, when trying to find some explanation, Pat Fitzgerald knew there was plenty of blame to go around.
"We're not executing right now to the level and the degree that we need to to be successful," Fitzgerald said at his weekly press conference. "I think first and foremost it starts with what we were doing as coaches. We took a hard look at things we're asking our guys to do on Sunday, a couple things schematically that maybe our guys just aren't playing to their strengths. So we'll take a look at that as we go forward this week. Also looking from an execution stand point of a consistent effort from guys. Some guys right now are playing at an inconsistent level. As I said after the game, we're not being successful enough on offense for us to win. So with that comes that vein that we always have in our program of competition, and if guys don't show us consistent effort or improvement this week, we're going to start rotating guys at different positions."
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Against Wisconsin, the Wildcats played poorly, as they did against Minnesota, but for the first time this season, Fitzgerald went after his team's effort.
"I'm looking at the effort level of some of our guys that have played a lot of football for us here, and it's unacceptable, not up to the standards that we believe in and that's a choice," he said. "And if I've got to coach effort for any guys then they're not going to play. They're not going to play. We talk about playing the 'Wildcat Way' here, and when you don't do that at a consistent level, I'm not going to play them."
The criticism of the players' effort was somewhat unexpected, even if it was deserved, something only the coaches would know. But what certainly was expected and deserved was another dressing down of the Northwestern offense. The Cats offense was ineffective for a second straight week, this time with injured playmakers Kain Colter and Venric Mark missing the entire game. Quarterback Trevor Siemian was under constant pressure and turned the ball over three times — including an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
"The last two weeks, we beat ourselves, Fitzgerald said. "Either from lack of execution or turning the ball over, our offense has really caused us to be in a hole. And they only way we're going to get out of it is to fight and scratch our way out of it, and I believe those guys will do that.
"The spread offense, it's not rocket science. Get first downs, keep possession and move the ball, and when you don't do that it's ugly. And for a couple weeks now, we've been pretty ugly, and we've got to get it fixed."
Northwestern has fallen a great deal from where it was at the beginning of this season. After 10 wins a year ago, the Cats are 4-3 without a Big Ten victory. Things are going to have to change and change fast if this year's team can find last year's success.
"Right now, the way we're playing offensively, we've lost two games because of us the last two weeks. And that's not to discredit the effort of Wisconsin and Minnesota, they've done good things also but not enough to stop us. We've stopped ourselves. And that's who we are right now offensively, and that's what we need to fix."