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Northwestern's Big Ten Championship hopes are bleak, but not gone

MADISON, Wis. -- Last week against Ohio State, Northwestern looked like a team capable of competing for a Big Ten championship. Other Legends contenders had shown imperfections through the first six weeks of the season, and the Wildcats, despite falling by 10 to the No. 4 Buckeyes, had seemingly made a statement. The Wildcats had arrived on the national stage, it was said; their performance against Ohio State, a back-and-forth thriller decided in the final minutes, validated that notion.

Northwestern’s road game against Wisconsin this week was supposed to mark the next step forward, another accomplishment in a season full of them. Instead, Wisconsin crushed the Wildcats, 35-6, on the scoreboard and in the wider college football fan consciousness. After watching Wisconsin dominate Northwestern in virtually every facet of the game, there is no reason – not right now, at least – to believe the Wildcats can make a run at Pasadena.

Early in the first quarter, it appeared Northwestern would be able to translate the momentum of last week’s loss into an impressive road win. The Wildcats pieced together a balanced drive, mixing passes and runs effectively, but were held up near Wisconsin’s goal line and kicked a field goal.

Then, Wisconsin’s onslaught began. The Badgers punished Northwestern along both lines of scrimmage and gashed the Wildcats for huge gains on the ground, including a 71-yard touchdown run from Melvin Gordon. The Wildcats came into the game knowing they needed to stop the Badgers’ ground attack – Wisconsin entered Saturday with the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing game at 7.44 yards per carry – but the extra defenders they positioned near the line of scrimmage compromised their pass defense. Jared Abbrederis’ 63-yard touchdown in the first half, wherein he ran between safeties Ibraheim Campbell and Treveon Henry for an easy score, was an eery realization of a problem Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hinted at earlier in the week.

"You load the box and they’re going to kill you with [Jared] Abbrederis," he said. When Northwestern tried to adjust, Wisconsin exploited an obvious mismatch: its ability to overpower Northwestern in the trenches. When it was over, the Badgers had racked up 286 yards on the ground (Gordon finished with 172). That lofty total – combined with the huge gaps of space Wisconsin created – seemed to validate a criticism Fitzgerald shot down most of the week – that the defensive tackles, even without injured starter Sean McEvilly, were strong enough to hold up against elite Big Ten offensive lines.

For the second straight week, Northwestern was outmuscled in the trenches. Once Wisconsin established that advantage – the same one Ohio State exploited for huge gains in the second half, largely on the strength of senior running back Carlos Hyde – the Wildcats couldn’t hope to slow the Badgers’ offense.

"Wisconsin is a powerhouse run team -- we know that," said senior linebacker Damien Proby. "They're a really run-dominated team."

One loss does not derail an entire season, even in the competitive Big Ten legends division. The Wildcats’ chances of reaching a Big Ten championship are not dead; they are diminished. Division competitors Michigan State and Nebraska are both 2-0 and Michigan is 1-1. More daunting is the Wildcats’ schedule, which – with remaining games at Nebraska and against Michigan State and Michigan – is harder than those of all three aforementioned teams. The biggest issue, though, is an obvious one: Northwestern doesn’t look capable of beating Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska right now.

Qualifying for an invitation to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game will likely require Northwestern to win out. Judging by its performance against the Badgers Saturday, the probability of that happening appears, well, slim.

Next week, Northwestern welcomes 4-1 (0-1 Big Ten) Minnesota to Evanston in a game it should, barring another disaster, win. Beating the Gophers would have seemed like a foregone conclusion two weeks ago – even one week ago – but after Satudary’s ugly performance, no game on Northwestern’s schedule seems like a guaranteed win. The Wildcats are reeling; the next step, before even thinking about Minnesota, is regrouping.

"We've dug ourselves a nice little hole here," said junior quarterback Trevor Siemian. "But we've gotta get ready for Minnesota and then we'll go from there."

The Wildcats’ chances of competing for a championship may seem bleak, but the season is far from over. There are plenty of opportunities for Northwestern to rebound, to show the first two games of the conference season are not indicative of its true abilities. Anyone watching Northwestern the last two weeks would have a hard time believing it belongs in the league title discussion.

"We know we can play better across the board," Proby said. "We'll go back, we'll watch film tomorrow. We'll scout ourselves, we'll look to get better and move forward."

For Northwestern, the first chance to move on from a humbling loss comes next week.