Given everything it has been through, one would only assume that Northwestern would take a match to the football blueprint and start fresh. You wouldn’t blame the Wildcats if they did.
Not after all the injuries—stressing the plural—which altered spring games, Hail Mary defeats, unorthodox game-tying field goals and a locker room union movement the likes of which the sport has never seen.
Through it all, however, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s demeanor has not wavered. His optimism—beyond his golf game, which remains a work in progress—is as inviting and palpable as ever. Despite the turbulent stretch, he has confidence in the plan.
“We believe in the process of getting yourself ready for the opportunities that you have,” Fitzgerald said. “And I’m not sure there’s another team in the country that is closer than ours right now because of everything we’ve been through.”
He won’t say it, so I will: No team over the past 15 months has been toyed with by the Football Gods more than this one.
The “everything” Fitzgerald referred to actually stretches back well beyond last season. The Wildcats were forced to revise their 2013 spring plans because of significant injuries to an already inexperienced offensive line.
Running back Venric Mark—coming off a year in which he eclipsed 1,300 yards rushing—was never right after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. This spring theme marched on throughout the year as Mark carried the ball just 31 times.
Despite these troubles, Northwestern still managed to start 4-0 (albeit against weaker competition). When ESPN’s College GameDay came to town for the Ohio State game, however, the avalanche began as the Bristol trucks departed Evanston.
The game against the Buckeyes was within reach—much more so than anticipated—but former Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde bulldozed his way through the Wildcats in the second half, leading the Buckeyes to victory.
This wasn’t a necessarily a shocking result at the time. But it was the first brick to fall in a heartbreaking string of dominos.
After losing to Minnesota by three points and then Iowa in overtime the following week, Northwestern lost to Nebraska on an implausible Hail Mary. Cornhusker head coach Bo Pelini’s frozen response—one not of joy, but rather disbelief—said everything that needed to be said. The reaction of the Northwestern players accurately encompassed the full range of football emotions.
Two weeks later—with a bye sprinkled in—Northwestern again lost in freakish fashion. The Wildcats fell at home to Michigan in triple overtime, thanks in large part to a remarkable, 44-yard, game-tying field goal at the end of regulation.
It was frantic—perhaps more rushed than any field goal you’ve ever seen—and the conditions were not optimal for a kicker. And yet, despite the low trajectory, it went right in.
Northwestern went on to lose seven of its final eight games, four of which were by less than three points or in overtime. It’s worth pointing out that the Wildcats' 10-point loss to Ohio State was actually much tighter. The final desperation offensive play for Northwestern resulted in a meaningless Ohio State touchdown. Well, it was meaningless to everyone but the gamblers.
“The last two years have been incredibly similar but very different,” Fitzgerald said. “The year prior, the eight to 10 plays that we needed to go our way did. Last year we won five games and very easily could have won 10.”
The offseason could not have come soon enough—and it was necessary—only the typical offseason itinerary was abandoned early on as former starting quarterback Kain Colter spearheaded the player union movement.
For the infant stages of the offseason, this was the story. It also hovered around Northwestern’s spring practice, an integral time for a team in need of reps and a reboot.
Trevor Siemian, the team’s current starting quarterback, spoke out publicly against the union. As the months progressed and the union vote approached, momentum in favor of the movement seemed to dissipate. It was a distraction, certainly, but it came at a school fit to handle it.
“It was definitely something else we had to deal with, but I think our guys did an excellent job of handling it,” Siemian said. “We go to Northwestern, so we’re accustomed to balancing academics and football. It was just another thing we had to balance.”
While the unionization will likely serve as the cover of Northwestern’s offseason yearbook, it won’t be the most significant page, at least not for the 2014 team. Injuries again have extensively altered the Wildcats’ plans, forcing the team to cut down on hitting for the second consecutive offseason.
Last year the offensive line was impacted; this year it was the defensive line, a position Fitzgerald referred to as the “hardest position in all of sports.” As a former All-American linebacker, he would know.
The development path was clearly impacted, and yet, he refuses to lean on it as an excuse.
“I’m not sure that’s unique to us,” Fitzgerald said on the injuries. “Like most teams, you’re going to come out of the season with some surgeries, and you just have to deal with it accordingly. You’ve got to tweak your plan.”
And they have. Northwestern hit much less in spring, leaving the team roughly 240 to 300 scrimmage reps behind where it normally would be. In the age of limited contact, this is a wealth of opportunities lost.
There’s urgency to get these reps back, of course, but there’s also an understanding that it can’t be done overnight.
“You could really make a mistake by trying to make up all those plays at once,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to get those reps in, but we’ve got to get them in smart to keep our guys as healthy as we can. We’re a little bit behind, but we’ll get caught up.”
There’s that optimism again, oozing with unmistakable charm. Part of it is simply his makeup and the prospects of coaching at the only school he's ever loved. The other part stretches beyond his natural upbeat approach and to the pieces in place.
It’s the health of his playmaking running back, a defense that will return key parts (when healthy again), and the development of his country-music-star QB.
“I don’t think he loves the comparison, but he’s a lot like Luke Bryan,” Fitzgerald said about Siemian, fighting off laughter. “He looks like Luke, has a calm demeanor and everybody likes being around him. It’s definitely his football team.”
Siemian has a much different makeup than Colter, the former QB with whom he once shared reps. He concedes that he’s not the kind of athlete that Colter was, and his mentality is more deliberate. Perhaps his coach can create a more accurate picture of the player.
“He never met a throw he didn’t like,” Fitzgerald said.
That certainly was the case in Northwestern’s final game of the 2013 season. After battling injuries much of the year, Siemian threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-34 win over Illinois. For Siemian, he’s hoping this was simply a sign of things to come.
“I feel as good as I have since I’ve been here,” Siemian said. “I’ve been able to focus on getting stronger, faster and developing some timing with our receivers and running backs. As a competitor, I’m looking forward to embracing a leadership role.”
Joining Siemian in the “feeling good” department is Mark, perhaps the most important piece to Fitzgerald’s optimism puzzle. Mark applied for a fifth year of eligibility after his abbreviated run last year, and it was granted.
Although it’s been a slow, contact-free grind back to good health, Fitzgerald expects his star running back to be without limitations for the start of the season. Siemian, the man hoping to be putting the ball right on his numbers as much as possible, agrees.
“He looks as good as he has in the past,” Siemian said about Mark in workouts. “He’s moving well, and I’m just excited for him. When he’s healthy, it definitely adds a different element to our offense.”
The prospects on the other side of the football aren’t as sanguine, but there’s potential with this group when you look beyond the injuries up front.
Northwestern ranked No. 68 against the run last year, giving up more than four yards per carry. This was far removed from the 2012 season in which Fitzgerald’s group allowed just 3.77 yards per rush, good for No. 22 in nation.
“Just because we’re older, that doesn’t mean we’ll be better,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we have a chance to be pretty good on defense, but we’ve got to work our butts off to get there.”
His outlook for the defense could be the same for the entire season ahead. There are only so many things a coach can control beyond ensuring that the players are as prepared as they can possibly be.
Put in the work, follow the appropriate steps—through a familiar approach and a few necessary tweaks when necessary—and see where the chips may fall.
What happens next is another story; no team knows that more than this one.
At some point, however, the fortunes will turn, the injury list will shrink, and the Hail Marys and unorthodox field goals will fall short or wide.
The Football Gods giveth, the Football Gods taketh away. For the Wildcats, the giving season approaches.