"Maybe I can find some pass rush up there oh please let there be some pass rush up there....I don't think there's any pass rush up there." (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Northwestern football is a strange thing. It is a brand known for its historical ineptitude, and yet, it is one that has experienced a veritable windfall of success throughout my lifetime. Since the beginning of that 1995 season, Northwestern has come away with three Big Ten titles, more than Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue, Iowa, and Penn State. Yes, this point might be considered a little historical gerrymandering on my part. Nonetheless, would you ever imagine that Northwestern, of all Big Ten schools, would have more conference titles to its name throughout a span of almost twenty years than some of the schools on that list? Perhaps this speaks to the Big Ten's historical lack of parity, a league that has almost always been dominated by either Michigan and Ohio State, with schools like Iowa, Wisconsin, and most recently Michigan State, serving as successful interlopers from time to time.
Then again, perhaps this speaks to Northwestern's ability to make the most of what it has as well as the circumstances of the time. The primary point of concern, however, is this: Northwestern's last championship season came 12 years ago, which feels like a lifetime ago. I remember attending the 2000 game at Ryan Field, even as a kid realizing that this wasn't supposed to happen. But we have Drew Henson and David Terrell and Anthony Thomas, I thought (note that none of these guys play defense, i.e. FIRE MICHIGAN'S POST-1997 DEFENSIVE RECRUITING). Well, that was Northwestern for you. Something that is even more Northwestern:
[...]is an American businessman who was starting quarterback for the Northwestern Wildcats from 1999 to 2001.
This is the first line from Zak Kustok's Wikipedia page. Yes, he is an American businessman and oh he also kind of happened to be a Northwestern quarterback who specialized in eviscerating the hopes and dreams of 11-year-old me. Whatever the Northwestern equivalent of Pure Michigan would be, well, this is it.
It is another bit of cognitive dissonance that the foundation of Northwestern's relative success throughout the last 20 years, was, in fact, a stalwart defense and not the grit-gut-irritation machine that is the contemporary Northwestern offense. This all, fairly poetically, started with the efforts of Pat Fitzgerald. A cursory Google search of "1995 northwestern defense" yields a bunch of first page legal discussions--also very Pure Northwestern--and an old, archived article from the Chicago Tribune, published just before the beginning of the 1995 season. Bill Jauss refers to the first full class recruited to Evanston by then head coach Gary Barnett as the "Buck Stops Here" class, then going on to detail the long list of S&C exploits of guys like Casey Dailey (and others). Northwestern relinquished a Greg Robinsonian 32 points per game in 1994: a good year for movies, a not so good year for the Northwestern defense.
Of course, Northwestern's 1995 team proved Jauss (and, I'm assuming everyone else in the world of college football) wrong, going 10-2 (8-0) and giving up a much improved 15 ppg, which gets bumped down to 12.7 if you excise the Rose Bowl against USC from the figure (a game in which Keyshawn Johnson and the Trojans overwhelmed Northwestern to the tune of 41 points despite a valiant overall effort from NU).
Despite having the occasional talent on the defensive side of the ball--players such as Luis Castillo, Corey Wootton, Nick Roach, Tim McGarigle, and a select few others--the Wildcats have not been able to rekindle the indomitable defensive verve that took the college football world by storm in 1995. Since Fitzgerald's playing days, it's been all about the offense: Kustok, Basanez, Bacher, Kafka, and Persa. Except for a brief period of time when Northwestern decided that having a running back was a good idea (i.e. the Tyrell Sutton era), it's been all about the quarterback and the offense in general. This, naturally, has its wisdom and its limitations for a program like Northwestern's.
The question is, I suppose: can Northwestern get back the roots of their success? Is it even feasible? I'm pretty sure a reference to the Ancient Aliens guys would not be out place here.
Recruiting rankings didn't exist back in 1995, but I'm fairly certain that Northwestern wasn't pulling in elite defensive talent back then. In accomplishing what they accomplished, they took creation from nothing, took all the hackneyed forces of will talked about with such blasé effortlessness and even ironic contempt--heart, grit, passion--in order for Northwestern to do something spectacular. It took Casey Dailey putting on 40 pounds and improving his 40 yard dash time. It took Pat Fitzgerald, a mere sophomore, exploding onto the scene, an eventual back-to-back Nagurski Award winner, still the only two-time winner in the award's 19-year history. It took the shattering of strength records and a mentality of enough is enough; we've withstood the tyranny of your oafish oppression quite long enough (in addition to your flawed notions of the fictional student-athlete hybrid. Nerds, post-haste: ASSEMBLE!
To resurrect what isn't dead because it has never lived in the first place is to accomplish the impossible, to bypass the conundrum of the chicken and the egg by virtue of creating corporeal life out of pure, self-contained notions. Thoughts, beliefs, absolute values stripped of pre-conceived notions and expectations and critiques. The buck stops here, and so it stops because I said as much.
Despite the irrationality of it all, Northwestern stood atop the conference standings for two years in the mid-1990s. The question is not "whether or not they can do it again," it's when the signs of upward approach will begin to appear. Actually, that might not even be the real question. After all, Northwestern's 1995 and 1996 seasons came after three seasons as horrible as the '95 and '96 were excellent. Perhaps this is an all-or-nothing affair...except when it's not. Then it's just frustrating bowl losses and platitudes that are easily transferrable to summer days at Wrigley Field just down the way*. We'll get 'em next year.
Assuming that the ultimate goal is to return to that level of '95/'96 level of prominence, it would seem that a paradigm shift might be necessary for Northwestern football to break through once again. The problem is...I'm not sure what would constitute that kind of shift. Whether you focus on offense or defense, a school like Northwestern is constrained by the fact that its recruiting will never be able to keep up with even the second tier of the conference, let alone the first. People will say "BUT BUT STANFORD" in order to refute the notion that nerds can't play football, but Jim Harbaugh is looking like he might be a once-in-a-generation type coach. While I'm a big fan of Fitzgerald, he is not Harbaugh. Also, Stanford being located in California doesn't hurt, as there's enough talent in the state to adequately fill several football programs' rosters with quality and quantity (a la Florida). Illinois and the surrounding states, while obviously not awful, aren't quite on that level. The BUT STANFORD argument is basically equivalent to the "recruiting rankings don't matter because Mike Hart." If you're keeping track, the common denominator here is that they're both really dumb.
Philosophically, you could say that maybe Northwestern should think about tweaking its offense, but even that option is fraught with peril. After all, the only reason Northwestern has been consistently winning 6-8 games in recent years (minus Fitzgerald's 4 and 9-win season in '06 and '08 respectively) is its offense. It's not quite what it was when the 'Cats were busy dropping 56 on Jim Herrmann's 2000 Michigan defense, but it has been more than good enough. Look at Northwestern's bowl game performances and you'll see a team getting bludgeoned with impunity when the other team has the ball, only to launch valiant comebacks via grit-tastic QB play while in desperation mode. Since 2005, Northwestern has given up the following point totals in its bowl appearances: 50, 30, 38, 45, 33. On a macro level, offense is not the problem, particularly given the fact that Northwestern is simply not going to get the 6'6'' Make All The Throws McGee that NFL scouts fawn over, or the Brobdingnagian offensive line prospects that you'll regularly find on the rosters of teams like Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Northwestern's QB-centric offense, which asks its signal caller to do basically everything, often with very little skill position talent around him, might not be a strategy capable of delivering a conference title. Still, Northwestern has made it work to an extent, and I think you'd find that most people are generally happy with the way things are going, minus the comfortably numb existentialist angst that yet another bowl loss may yield.
In perhaps the most useful apparatus for the measurement of a program's progress, the Wildcats have even made enemies in recent years, making the Iowa-NU game one to mark if you're a fan of seemingly unlikely but highly satisfying relationships based on hatred. Channeling Mark Richt and his endearingly eloquent reference to what the Vanderbilt game will be like this year**, a surprising amount of "piss and vinegar" has been built up between the Hawkeyes and Wildcats, and that is decidedly a good thing for Northwestern, the conference, and Big Ten fans in general. It's a sign that people, somewhere, care about Northwestern, and that the 'Cats have separated themselves from the bottom tier of the conference for probably as long as Fitzgerald is the HC in Evanston. This is well and good, but is there not anything...more?
In spite of Northwestern's past success, its competitiveness in recent years, and the fact that it is in better shape than at least four programs in the conference despite having by far the strictest academic standards in the league...it all feels a little bit empty. Pat Fitzgerald is somehow--time flies--entering his 7th season as Northwestern's head football coach, and while he is obviously the perfect man for the job and in absolutely no danger of being fired--or even having the notion entertained--any time soon, one would have to wonder what exactly can be considered a reasonable goal and what cannot be. The thing is, once you clearly define these boundaries, there's no going back unless someone comes in with a sledgehammer and brings said boundaries crashing down. In 1995, Pat Fitzgerald was one of many purple and black-clad sledgehammer wielders; who wields the hammer now?
In light of the incredibly unfortunate and disappointing end to Dan Persa's career, I have to liken him to John Shurna. Persa and Shurna were arguably Northwestern's best players in their respective sports (in Shurna's case, probably of all time), the best chances at accomplishing things once thought unattainable. Of course, Northwestern's failure to qualify for the Big Dance yet again despite all of Shurna's statistical accomplishments is well-documented. After Northwestern's brutal loss to Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, I had to wonder whether or not Northwestern will make the tournament, ever (sort of like how I wonder whether or not the Cubs will win a World Series in my lifetime***). Likewise, I get the feeling that Dan Persa might have been NU's best shot at staring down the big boys and somehow eeking out a Legends Division title. After all, jokes aside, when was the last time a Northwestern football player has received even an iota of Heisman attention (whether entirely warranted or not?). NU's acquisition of players like WR Kyle Prater and 2012 DE Ifeadi Odenigbo is a good start going forward, but it will take more than that if NU wants to do something worth writing home about again.
Unless Northwestern football (and basketball) is about to experience the Ewing Theory in all its glory this season, Persa's lost senior season seems like a missed chance, a misfortune that perhaps affirms that some things are not meant to be...if you don't believe in such quixotic notions of Fate and the rigidity of one's station, you could say that some things are just merely implausible. Yes, this is all an extremely roundabout way of justifying a questionable post title for the second week in a row.
Fate, like Alexander the Great, can be kind of a jerk. If not for Persa's treacherous Achilles--another appropriately classical reference--Northwestern's 2011 season may have ended much differently.
Is Kain Colter the answer? I don't know. He's probably not any better than Persa at his peak, but he has shown flashes of praise-worthy play, most especially on the road in Lincoln last season. I think that nobody knows, just like nobody knew what was in store for NU in 1995. In the Tribune article linked above, Jauss predicted a 4-7 season for the Wildcats; he, like everyone else, was proven to be laughably wrong. While Northwestern has clearly upped its baseline performance since its pre-1995 days, I think the same dramatic, practically out-of-nowhere uptick is going to have to come to pass if NU is going to reprise its glory years. When it happens, I don't think there'll be much notice. If it does happen again, it will be because a second iteration of the "Buck Stops Here" class has descended upon Evanston, a group of scholar-athlete-warrior-poets with the understanding that not only do you have to build a foundation at Northwestern, you have to fashion the foundation's components from thin air, mettle, and non-ironic grit.
*Sorry, White Sox fan here.
**Vanderbilt...if that's not Pure Northwestern, I don't know what is. Other than Northwestern. And John Shurna's jumper.
***Sorry again...not really, though. The Cubs are never going to win anything, ever.