Pressure, tension and uncertainty were displayed on Illinois’ sideline Saturday, when an emotional Tim Beckman and his coaching staff knew what was on the line — their jobs.
On the other sideline stood Northwestern and a staff that rarely, if ever, has found itself in the same situation. It made the outcome all too predictable.
The Wildcats lost at home 47-33 in a game that made Illinois bowl-eligible and left Northwestern out of the postseason for the second consecutive year.
That gives credence to the idea that more pressure needs to be put on the Wildcats’ staff by the university. Coaching changes need to be at least considered on the offensive side of the ball, where the team has been wildly inconsistent the last two seasons.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald values loyalty. But considering changes within his staff doesn’t make him disloyal. It makes him loyal to the Wildcats’ program.
“As I look at where our program is at right now, I’ve obviously got to evaluate everything,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve got to evaluate where we’re at from a standpoint of the way we completely develop our guys. It’s all-encompassing. Not to be in the postseason in back-to-back years, you take a critical eye at everything.”
Northwestern was good enough to beat Wisconsin and win at Notre Dame. But it was bad enough to lollygag through the first half of a must-win game against rival Illinois, which made the coaching staff look bad. The Wildcats were the most inconsistent team in the Big Ten this season.
Quarterback Zack Oliver, recruited by the staff to start eventually, looked like a backup. Granted, he was thrown into the starting role after watching Trevor Siemian go down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament the week before against Purdue.
But that shouldn’t be an excuse for a staff that prides itself on developing talent. Oliver threw three interceptions.
Here’s the real kicker: Beckman, the Big Ten’s walking punch line, has been more successful the last two seasons than Fitzgerald. Both coaches have 10 victories, but Beckman will have had one more bowl appearance by the end of the year.
So what can Northwestern do to get back to the über-hyped program that won the Gator Bowl after the 2012 season?
“Guys just got to come together, really just love each other and be willing to give that positive criticism,” senior receiver Tony Jones said. “I think when guys really started doing that and getting after one another and doing it with a good heart, I think that’s something that the team could really use.”
Jones was referring to the players. The university might want to heed Jones’ advice, too.
But after two losing seasons, Fitzgerald doesn’t believe his program is far from where it was two years ago.
“We’re pretty darn close from being where we want to be,” Fitzgerald said. “But close isn’t good enough, obviously.
“Our program is as stable and as strong as we’ve ever been.”
Maybe what the coaches need is to feel the smallest twinge of instability.
Oliver fails to enhance his chances in audition
Northwestern junior quarterback Zack Oliver could have used the game against Illinois as an opportunity to stake his claim as the starter heading into spring practice next year.
But Oliver’s poor play, which included three interceptions and just one touchdown, prompted coach Pat Fitzgerald to acknowledge there would be a quarterback competition.
Oliver will compete with redshirt freshman Matt Alviti and true freshman Clayton Thorson, who redshirted this season. The dual-threat Alviti, who was heavily recruited, disappointed in limited appearances.
“It came down to execution, and I didn’t execute to the best of my ability,” Oliver said of his play Saturday. “I look forward to competition in any way possible. I enjoy it. I thrive on it.”
The lone bright spot for Northwestern was a talented group of freshmen. Among them were true freshman running backs Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault.
Vault returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Jackson carried 24 times for 130 yards, including touchdown runs of five and 35 yards.
“From the moment that he [Vault] got here, between him and Justin seeing them early in fall camp during Kenosha, we knew they would both be huge for us,” wide receiver Tony Jones said.
Secondary beat up
In the last two weeks, the Wildcats have lost four defensive backs to injury. The team was without starting corner Nick VanHoose, starting safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Marcus McShepard.