This November, we sat miserably in the press box waiting for the game to end, watching a comparable program thrash Northwestern 30-6 on Senior Day. And we dread this coming August.
Because what will I say this offseason? Where are the storylines? If I'm preaching positivity – and not using the word "Alviti" – I'm lying. Hold me to this, please.
Mom, dad, I'll be home for the holidays. That's my consolation prize. The Wildcats somehow missed bowl eligibility, and their consolation prize might come in the form of an even worse Illinois team. Then there's the long wait until next year, when the pressure's really on.
This program is crumbling. Not the season, not the players, not the coaches. The program. It peaked somewhere in Jacksonville, and I'm not sure it's coming back — not until NU makes dramatic adjustments.
There's something wrong. I don't know what it is. Just remember last season, when fifth-year senior Jared Carpenter willed NU to its late-game road win against Michigan State. The aura surrounding this team felt different, like there was long-term hope.
I'm sorry, but now there's none. No confidence, no playmakers, and none of the intensity that defined Northwestern last season. Frankly, barring dozens of unexpected improvements next year, we're doomed to 6-6 or 7-5 and, certainly, more terrible playcalling.
Oh, and a boring as hell August.
I'll just say this, while trying to respect the talented coaching staff that found unprecedented success last season: Jim Phillips has not been shy in demanding more from his athletic programs.
There's a surprisingly intense movement to "Fire Mick McCall," which, I'll admit, might miss the point. It's hard to place all of the blame on the offensive coordinator — not on a team with this many problems. And the words "Fitz" and "hot seat" won't accompany each other, at least not for several years.
For fear of my journalistic life, I won't make any specific suggestions, but Phillips has to know that this program needs immediate change. If you call this year an anomaly, you're banking on next season being better, which isn't happening.
Fitzgerald might want to seriously evaluate his entire coaching staff. He's very respectful of his assistants – considering them a truly vital part of his program – but anyone here could use a sense of urgency. Coaching continuity is sweet to recruits until the team falls to 0-7 in Big Ten play. This isn't accusatory; he may as well try to break the status quo.
Yeah, Michigan State crushed Northwestern, and I predicted 38-3 so today made perfect sense — aside from one thing. It seemed clinical and passionless. The offense looked as hesitant as its coordinator; the defensive shortcomings returned in full force. No one brags about returning most players from a 1-7 (assuming a lot) team. I'm not going to start trying, not even with Venric Mark's return.
Changing this family-oriented program is about as easy as Mike Trumpy running for an option first down on third-and-nine. But do you value winning or comfort? Do you consider 5-7 the anomaly, or 10-3 the anomaly? These are the questions you have to answer when the program falls apart.
Today was just another day: Michigan State gained 464 easy yards – an impressive 7.2 per play – and throttled Northwestern as was expected. Despite gaining consistent yardage, the Wildcats settled for two field goals and relied on the painful conservative approach.
But what is one game when the problem feels so much greater? Zero wins in seven Big Ten games. Zero real answers. The most disappointing team in America.
Those are the facts, and Phillips and Fitzgerald are stuck with them. They're also stuck with the long offseason, just like we are. We can't return to Jacksonville, when the program felt unbeatable.
We're in Evanston, another loss in the books, waiting for someone to acknowledge that this is not all right.