Northwestern entered the 2009 season with high hopes, and rightfully so. The Wildcats were coming off of one of just a handful of nine-win seasons in the program's history and had the vast majority of a strong defense coming back.
And the schedule was more than favorable, with a very good chance for NU to sweep the entire first half of the season. A bowl bid looked like a given, and if things went well for the offense, NU could even be in the hunt for a Jan. 1 bowl game.
After one-third of the season, though, all of those expectations have been thrown out and the Wildcats' season is seemingly on life support.
After cruising through a victory over FCS/I-AA opponent Towson in week one, the 'Cats have hit numerous speed bumps. In week two they found themselves up by a significant margin at halftime against a rebuilding Eastern Michigan squad.
In the second half, the collapse began, as the defense seemingly imploded while the offense barely put together enough of a game to pull out the last-second victory.
Then in the road trip to Syracuse, NU's offense lit up the scoreboard, but the defense continued its poor showing (although the injury bug didn't exactly help much).
Finally, against Minnesota, the NU D couldn't contain the Gophers' running game as it racked up over twice its season average going into the game.
In both cases, the offense had costly turnovers late in the game that turned into game-sealing scores for NU's opponents.
The pessimists look at NU's resume and see a 2-2 record with the only wins coming over a bad lower subdivision team and a very close win over a bad mid-major team, with one of the losses coming against a team that NU definitely should have beaten (Syracuse) considering their record over the past few seasons.
And over the last two and a half games, the NU defense has looked miserable, yielding over 37 points per game over the last 10 quarters.
Despite all of this, Northwestern does have a chance to turn things around this season and get themselves back into the bowl hunt.
NU had the ball with a chance to win both of their last two games late in the fourth quarter, and in both games the 'Cats actually went into the fourth quarter with the lead. Now we'll explore how Northwestern can get things going this year.
Tackle better, period. That is one way to vastly improve how the defense has looked over the last 10 quarters of play, because there have been numerous missed tackles that have allowed opponents to rack up a ton of yards after initial contact.
Against Syracuse, NU allowed some very long "explosion" plays on defense, which was mostly corrected against Minnesota (the Gophers had just one play from scrimmage for more than 20 yards, a 27-yard pass completion).
NU did a nice job generally containing the potentially lethal WR Eric Decker (who had just 84 receiving yards) and gave themselves a chance to win by preventing any huge plays down the field.
The issue in the Minnesota game, though, was the aforementioned poor tackling. With ballcarriers able to pick up yards after the hit, Minnesota set themselves up with very manageable second and third downs, which allowed them to continue running and still pick up the first down.
The Wildcats allowed the Gophers to convert 8-of-14 third downs after holding the prior three opponents to under 30 percent on third-down conversions.
If the Wildcats can find a way to revert to their 2008 form, where they played disciplined football and made teams work for their yards, they will give the 'Cats a much better chance to win this year.
Finish drives. That means avoiding mistakes at the end of drives that cost points. Against both Eastern Michigan and Minnesota, QB Mike Kafka tossed interceptions in the red zone, costing Northwestern at least a field goal and likely more.
And also against Minnesota, a holding call cost NU a first-and-goal at the four-yard line, with the 'Cats settling for a field goal.
Take care of the football. Twice over the last two games Kafka has fumbled deep in NU territory, essentially giving the opponent a touchdown. Against Minnesota, that fumble came as NU was looking to drive for the game-winning score in the fourth quarter.
In the Syracuse game, the costly turnover was a Kafka interception that allowed the Orange to drive for the game-winning field goal. NU's turnover margin in 2009 is -0.75 per game, 91st nationally.
The offensive line must play its part as well, as it has yielded 2.5 sacks per game so far this year (88th nationally) and isn't exactly opening up gaping holes to run through (NU is averaging 4.1 yards per carry, mostly thanks to big rushing performances in the first two weeks of the year).
The offense has looked much better than many expected, with Kafka having already eclipsed the 1,000 yard passing yard mark this year to go with his five passing TDs (he's also caught one and ran for one).
But in order to win games, the offense must protect the football and finish drives, as they've learned the hard way the past two games.
The Wildcats have generally come out ready to play in the first half of games, outscoring opponents 89-48 in the first halves of 2009 games.
But NU has fallen apart in the fourth quarter, being outscored 19-38 in the final quarter of those games, evidenced by the wasted fourth-quarter leads in each of the last two games.
This is something NU has had issues with in the recent past under Coach Fitz: In 2007, the Wildcats yielded three fourth-quarter leads, and there was also that blown 35-point lead over MSU in 2006. But, it's something that the 'Cats can correct, as shown by the nine wins NU racked up last season.
If NU takes care of the issues above (tackling, finishing drives, and protecting the football), this issue should correct itself: 24 of the 38 points NU has yielded in the fourth quarter this year have come off turnovers.
As mentioned above, the Wildcats were in a position to win each of the last two games but failed to do so due to these errors.
Although NU has seemingly blown games to two beatable opponents, the 'Cats will have more chances to win on the horizon. Michigan State and Illinois have seemingly faltered this season, and they account for two of NU's remaining road games.
Another road opponent, Purdue, is currently 1-3 and has plenty of issues of their own. And NU's final non-conference opponent, Miami (OH), is a bad team this season that the 'Cats should easily handle. And, there's Indiana, who NU will host for homecoming.
That yields five winnable games for the Wildcats in the final two-thirds of the 2009 season, and if NU can play a well-rounded game, they could actually knock off a tough team at home (like Penn State or Wisconsin), or maybe even Iowa on the road (the 'Cats seem to have their number in recent years, just like they have Penn State's number).
Although Northwestern's start to the season looks like a disappointment, the fact is that if not for some correctable mistakes, NU very well could have won every game so far.
Now the Wildcats know what to focus on moving forward (protecting the ball, finishing drives, and tackling) and will have plenty of chances to turn the season around and get themselves squarely into the postseason hunt.
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