His sense of humor in better shape than his football team, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald kidded Monday about plans to make a proposal to the university president.
"We stink in October (so) I'm going to talk to President (Morton) Schapiro about starting the school year in December,'' Fitzgerald joked.
Indeed, lately October is as cruel to Northwestern as it is to Cubs fans. Under Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are 12-21 in the month that traditionally separates Big Ten contenders from pretenders. A crushing 17-10 overtime loss to Iowa essentially served as the fourth quarter of a season-defining Oct. 5 defeat to Ohio State that played out painfully over four successive weekends — and counting. Suddenly, a Northwestern program once trendy to love has become easy to doubt.
The slow, painful descent toward oblivion began at Ryan Field against Ohio State with the Wildcats facing fourth-and-inches at the Buckeyes' 34 with just under 3 minutes left. Northwestern trailed 34-30. For reasons that made sense only to Fitzgerald and his coaching staff, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter took only his second snap of the game under center instead of the shotgun formation. Colter fumbled on a predictable quarterback-sneak attempt and his forward momentum — along with the 2013 season's — got swallowed in a scrum.
A measurement confirmed Colter still was inches short. The weeks that followed proved Northwestern was much further away from being taken seriously as a top 20 team than many of us realized. Since Colter's fumble, Chicago's Big Ten team regressed into Chicago's Big Ten tease.
"We have improved since then but not enough to win,'' linebacker Damien Proby said.
Now, Fitzgerald's 4-4 Wildcats head to Lincoln, Neb., to stop the snickering and do what they have yet to do: Beat a team they shouldn't. Now, Northwestern fights to gain bowl eligibility with Michigan and Michigan State looming after Nebraska. Now, Fitzgerald faces an opportunity to show everybody why he was at the center of premature Texas and USC rumors, why many of us still consider him one of the most dynamic coaches in America.
Drive along Sheridan Road and you can see construction equipment related to a $220 million lakefront athletic facility that symbolizes Northwestern football's arrival to modern-day, big-time college athletics. Now, it is time Fitzgerald finds a way to get his team to produce more evidence.
As wonderful as Northern Illinois' narrative is, the in-state team knocking on the door of a BCS bowl for the second straight year shouldn't be NIU. Illinois finishing October still searching for its first Big Ten victory comes as little surprise given where the Illini are in coach Tim Beckman's second — and possibly final — season in Champaign. But Northwestern?
Not only can the Wildcats do better but, for Northwestern football to ascend to that elusive next level, those who still believe in Fitzgerald must demand it every Saturday, every season. Northwestern can't just be the quaint campus on the lake without peer when it comes to graduating football players — a national-best Graduation Success Rate (GSR) of 97 percent, according to recent data. The Wildcats can't let a narrow loss to Ohio State rationalize getting blown out at Wisconsin, embarrassed at home by Minnesota or outlasted against Iowa. Fans, alumni and media can't just scrutinize Northwestern's program when ESPN's "College GameDay" shows up.
It's too soon to turn attention to whiz kid NU basketball coach Chris Collins. Fitz and his football team should have more worthwhile to say. Expecting more needs to be the rule, not the exception.
"You've got to stay the course, that's No. 1,'' Fitzgerald said. "You've just got to keep showing them what to do, hold them accountable. If guys aren't doing it in a consistent fashion, you let competition solve the problem. Competition is one of the best problem-solvers I've seen in football and in life.''
That sounded like a warning likely heard loudest by running back Mike Trumpy, whose second fumble at the Iowa 45 with 3:14 remaining deprived Northwestern of its best chance to win in regulation. Yet Trumpy's mental mistake was far from the only one that undid Northwestern. Dan Vitale's clipping penalty the previous play was one of five that hurt a team that should be more disciplined. Injuries to Colter and Venric Mark understandably affected the season's arc, but legitimate Big Ten contenders don't let the iffy health of two players lead to four straight losses.
"At our place, the sky isn't falling. It's sunny out so you just keep grinding, coach the snot out of the guys,'' Fitzgerald said. "We have to use our frustration as fuel. We've got a third of the season left.''
Fitzgerald presented that as the good news. For a Northwestern team already with four losses before November, it threatens to become the bad news too.