NU should give Fitzgerald a chance to figure out flaws
Thanks to Iowa's loss on Friday, there's a chance the Land of Lincoln trophy will be handed to the state's third Big Ten West champ of the last five years.
For that to happen, Illinois would have to beat Northwestern in Evanston on Saturday, while Purdue must lose to Indiana. The Illini should have wrapped up a spot in the Big Ten title game already, but more on that later. Let's start with Northwestern's dismal performance since winning the opener in Dublin.
Win or lose, Northwestern will finish with its most losses since going 0-11 under Francis Peay in 1989. But before anybody asks: No, NU should not consider firing coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Sure, Gary Barnett pulled off the original miracle, but Fitzgerald accomplished something no one thought was possible -- winning with some consistency on the North Shore, even if the last two years have been bad.
Barnett took NU to two bowl games in seven years, Randy Walker went to three in seven years. The Fitzgerald era includes 10 bowls in 17 years, along with West division titles in 2018 and '20. Thinking there's someone out there who would do a better job in Evanston is a bad idea.
What Fitzgerald needs is to figure out what's gone wrong. An obvious place to start are the two coordinators.
Losing defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to retirement after the 2020 season feels like a significant blow. Hankwitz had 50 years of college coaching experience. His replacement, Jim O'Neil, spent 10 years in the NFL before joining the Wildcats.
It's easy to suggest O'Neil hasn't adjusted to the college game. At the same time, in some of the games when NU was most competitive, it was the defense that kept it close. Two examples are the 17-7 loss at Penn State and 17-9 at Purdue last weekend. The defense and wind kept things close against Ohio State on Nov. 5.
Of course, the defense also gave up 30-plus points to Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, Duke and Southern Illinois.
A bigger issue is why Northwestern's run of solid quarterbacks came to a sudden stop. Some NU fans cheered when Fitzgerald fired longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall after the 2019 season, saying his play-calling had gotten conservative and predictable.
But under McCall's watch, the Wildcats had quarterbacks like Dan Persa, Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian and Clayton Thorson. Fitzgerald seemed to signal problems were ahead at the end of the 2020 season when he lobbied for grad transfer QB Peyton Ramsey to return for another season on a Zoom call with reporters. Ramsey did not return.
What makes the story even more strange is Northwestern had two five-star high school recruits transfer in to play quarterback. Hunter Johnson arrived from Clemson and had no success. Former South Carolina signal caller Ryan Hilinski put up some decent numbers this fall before going out with an injury, but just the one win over Nebraska.
The supporting cast is actually pretty good. RB Evan Hull is third in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards, WR Malik Washington is top 10 in both receptions and yards, while LT Peter Skoronski is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick next year.
The good news is Northwestern has posted three consecutive top-50 recruiting classes, according to 247sports.com, maybe for the first time in program history. The improved facilities should be paying off.
Player development appears to be the biggest problem, but who's fault is that? After years of staff continuity, the Wildcats made several changes starting in 2018, and that was the year they made the first of two Big Ten title game appearances.
The Fighting Illini has played well in coach Bret Bielema's second season, but missed a great chance to win the West by dropping the last three games, not to mention an early-season loss at Indiana.
Bielema is new, but this isn't necessarily a young team on the rise. The Illini could lose RB Chase Brown, QB Tommy DeVito, the two veteran linemen from the suburbs, Alex Palczewski and Alex Pihlstrom; along with multiple players from a talented defensive backfield.
Reloading for another run next fall won't be automatic for Illinois.