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Bad early-season losses nothing new for Northwestern

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If Northwestern’s ugly 41-17 loss to Duke on Saturday looked a little familiar, it should have. In several different ways.

The Wildcats looked flat in falling behind the Blue Devils by double digits in the first half, just as they did the week before against Nevada. But while Northwestern rallied for a victory against the Wolf Pack in the opener, matters just got worse in the second half on the road against Duke.

Looking at a bigger picture, just last year the Wildcats also laid a big egg in Week 2, losing to Illinois State 9-7 after a shaky Week 1 performance. At least this year they are 1-1; last year they lost to Western Michigan by a point in the opener and were 0-2.

In fact, widening the scope a little bit more, bad performances early in the season are nothing new for Northwestern. Including Saturday’s brutal whipping, the Wildcats dropped a game they weren’t expected to during the non-conference schedule seven times in head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 12 seasons as head coach.

Let’s take a trip down bad memory lane.

In 2006, in Fitzgerald’s first year, FCS New Hampshire went into Ryan Field and embarrassed the Wildcats 34-17. The next year, it again was Duke – a team that went 0-12 the year before and would post only the win over Northwestern in 2007 – that walked out of Evanston with a disheartening 20-14 win.

In 2009, a Syracuse team that finished 4-8 nipped the Wildcats 37-34 in the Carrier Dome. In 2011, it was Army, a team that finished 3-8 and only beat Tulane and Fordham the rest of the season, that put a humiliating 21-14 defeat on Northwestern in West Point.

In 2014, a Cal team that was 1-11 the year before – including a loss to Northwestern – surprised the Wildcats 31-24 at Ryan Field. The following week, Northern Illinois from the MAC doubled the insult by coming in to beat NU 23-15.

Then last year it was Western Michigan and Illinois State, two underdogs, that emerged from Ryan Field with wins. Western Michigan wound up in a New Year’s Day bowl game, tempering the sting; but the loss to the FCS Redbirds was probably the lowest point of the Fitzgerald era.

The good news is that in four of those six previous seasons the Wildcats lost one they were not expected to early in the year, they bounced back to wind up in a bowl game. So Fitzgerald and Northwestern know how to come back from a humbling defeat. (And Duke, even coming off of a 4-8 season, looks to be a much better team than most of the also-rans that beat Northwestern in previous seasons.)

Last year, for example, Fitzgerald “put the pedal down” in practice after his team’s 0-2 start. He had taken it easy on his players toward the end of fall camp because of injuries, but after they lost those first two games, he went old-school and started making practice more demanding and more physical.

It sounds like an antiquated notion, but the Wildcats responded, winning six of nine, including a big Pinstripe Bowl upset of heavily favored Pittsburgh.

Fitzgerald would love to repeat that ploy; the season is still young and Northwestern was expected by many experts to be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West.

However, the coach sees no such easy remedy this time around. He thought the Wildcats had a good week of practice last week, so he had no clue that they would get “outcoached, outexecuted and outplayed” by the Blue Devils.

“I don’t know if we have a practice problem right now,” said Fitzgerald. “I think they really worked hard last week. I didn’t see a let-up or a letdown…

“Of course, I’m going to make changes (in the lineup) because when you perform like we have in the first half and been outscored now by 21 points going into halftime in two games, you can’t put yourself in those situations and be consistent. I’ll take a look at a bunch of things from that standpoint, but I can’t look at practice last week and say we’d give up 41 points and only get 17.”

Northwestern’s defense, which featured a banged-up secondary and allowed Duke to convert 15 of 22 third downs, had a rough afternoon. But the real culprit was an offense that couldn’t run the ball (22 total yards), protect quarterback Clayton Thorson (four sacks for 40 yards in losses) or sustain drives (1-for-10 on third downs).

Fitzgerald said that it looked like Northwestern’s wide receivers “didn’t win our one-on-ones on the outside.” Many times, Thorson had to hold the ball too long because his receivers couldn’t get open, even against man-free coverage with cornerbacks rolled up to the line of scrimmage.

If that seems like déjà vu, it is. Northwestern had the same problems in 2015, when the offense sputtered regularly and finished last in the Big Ten in scoring (19.5 points per game). That team relied on a lights-out defense to win 10 games; it doesn’t look, at this point, like the Wildcat defense has the ability to dominate games like that one did this year.

Fitzgerald also singled out Northwestern’s offensive line after the Duke game. Guard Tommy Doles thinks the line’s inability to block Duke’s front led to the failure of the running game, which led to too many third-and-long situations, failed drives and the defense spending too much time on the field (41:18). It was a downward spiral that, in his eyes, began with the failure of his unit.

“Early on, we just weren’t executing in the run game, and the play calling turns to more passing because we weren’t getting the job done up front,” said a disappointed Doles. “That’s something we’re going to take accountability for and get better from.”

At this point, there really isn’t any other choice.