EVANSTON, Ill. -- It's hard to tell what was uglier on Saturday night at Ryan Field -- Northwestern's homecoming uniforms, which looked like they had been lifted from a local high school; the Wildcats' defense, which allowed 293 yards; or the offense, which sputtered down the stretch and couldn't make a big play when it had to have one.
All of it was tough to watch.
"I just feel like this whole season, offense is playing good [in one game], defense is playing bad. Defense is playing good, offense is playing bad," Wildcats offensive threat Kain Colter said. "We just got to be able to come together and just put it all together. I feel like once we do, we can really flip this season back around. But [it's just] silly mistakes out there. I just feel like we're beating ourselves every week and it's real tough."
Yes, the Wildcats may have beaten themselves throughout the night -- dropped passes, missed assignments and poor decisions were on display again. The problem for Pat Fitzgerald and his team is that the miscues don't get fixed week after week. Northwestern continues to make the same mistakes, run into the same problems. Just when you think they've turned a corner, they turn right back around and run into a wall.
Even Fitzgerald, ever the optimist, is frustrated because he can't seem to find a cure for what ails his team. He made five different changes to his starting lineup before the game and that didn't work, prompting the young head coach to hint that there may be even more movement to the depth chart in the near future.
"I gave the guys a quote this week," Fitzgerald said. "‘It's OK to make a mistake once, but if you make the mistake a second time it's a choice.’ We've got too many guys making the wrong choices. With that being said, I think the number one motivator is [to] watch. It's called the bench. You're going to figure it out and you're going to play fundamentally better and you're going to play consistently [or else] I've got one of the best seats in Ryan Field… you're going to stand next to me. That's not a threat. That's how we're going to get better is just by competing and getting better."
The larger issue for the Wildcats is that maybe they aren't going to get much better this season. Maybe they're just not as good as they thought they were going to be. The defense is porous and gave up almost 400 yards to a Penn State unit which has struggled most of the season. The players speak of a bowl game appearance as if it's still a possibility, but that would mean that they not only have to knock off Indiana, Rice and Minnesota, they also have to beat either Nebraska in Lincoln or Michigan State at home in order to become bowl eligible.
Given how much they've struggled in the past few weeks, that seems like a major stretch.
"Everyone's extremely frustrated," safety Brian Peters said. "When you're losing games no one's going to be happy. That's standard operating procedure. But we got to turn that frustration into motivation. We've got to start making things happen for 60 minutes."
If they don't, this season may end up being the most disappointing in Fitzgerald's tenure.