It's time for NU to produce

Fitzgerald's charges have been coddled too long; this team should be playing New Year's Day

Beginning today, I'm resolving to give Northwestern football what those responsible for it say they desire — reviews that are honest and, if necessary, unmerciful.

When NU recently announced it has conceptualized a $220 million plan for new athletic digs and has marketed itself as "Chicago's Big Ten Team," reasons to treat the Wildcats with kid gloves were removed.

Pat Fitzgerald's team should be looking to jump to 9-0 Saturday when Iowa visits. It isn't. Instead, fingers are crossed in Evanston that the Wildcats don't squander another late lead and can hold off the Hawkeyes to avoid falling to 2-3 in the Big Ten.

Give the Purple a pass because they weren't expected to be that good if you want, but my bar is set higher. In a weak league, there are no acceptable excuses for not delivering knockout punches when an opponent is on the ropes.

Fitzgerald sells championships, not being competitive. Athletic director Jim Phillips isn't packaging sponsor trips to Detroit for late December. His sights are set on warm-weather burgs.

With sanctions keeping Ohio State and Penn State out of the picture this year, a marquee bowl assignment has been right there for Northwestern to claim. But the Wildcats couldn't close out games in State College, Pa., where they were outscored 22-0 in the fourth quarter several weeks ago, or against Nebraska last Saturday at Ryan Field.

Fitzgerald said this week he believes his team's penchant for fourth-quarter collapses has been "over-analyzed." He's right.

There should be every bit as much discussion about how dreadful Northwestern's offense performed in the first quarter in the Wildcats' 29-28 loss to Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers did their part to aid NU's Legends Division title chances by committing stupid penalties and sloppy play on special teams in the first half. But NU scored just one touchdown off three Nebraska turnovers.

Northwestern managed one first down in its first seven possessions. In 17 possessions, NU had 10 three-and-outs.

Quarterback Trevor Siemian had a brutal day opposite one of the most suspect defenses in the country. In a passing attack that emphasizes short routes and ample choices of targets, Siemian was 15-for-35 for 116 yards. That's an average of 3.3 yards per attempt.

Fitzgerald and his staff have asked more of Siemian than he can handle in his sophomore season. He threw only 26 passes as the No. 3 quarterback last year and doesn't appear comfortable.

With a shot at ringing in 2013 in Florida still alive, it's a good idea for NU to park—at least for the short term—its "basketball on grass" approach. If Kain Colter and Venric Mark combine for 50 carries against Iowa, I'm good with that.

I'm also good with Fitzgerald exhibiting thick skin. He should welcome being "over-analyzed." It beats being irrelevant.

Fitzgerald can recall how off the radar the NU program was when Gary Barnett recruited him at Sandburg. The All-American boy from the Southwest suburbs has lived here almost his entire life and participated largely as Barnett guided NU to back-to-back New Year's Day dates after the 1995 and '96 seasons.

Is that a reasonable expectation of Fitzgerald? Yes.

Does the coach get cut slack because of NU's tough academic standards or because he's accessible, likable and was a Hall of Fame player? No.

Barnett wrote a book he titled "High Hopes." He wasn't referring to a date in the Motor City Bowl.

Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.

CHICAGO

More

Five on Five