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Despite loss to Michigan, Northwestern still a Big Ten West contender

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Saturday showed that this NU team has its limitations, but those limitations won't necessarily prevent them from falling out of the Big Ten West race.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The word ugly can mean a lot of different things. It can refer to a physical appearance that is grotesque or not visually pleasing. It can refer to a rude, impolite attitude. It can refer to a situation that is threatening to turn violent. It can just refer to something generally unpleasant.

In football though, it has two definitions. It can mean a one-sided beatdown. Or it can mean a sloppy, bruising, ugly game. Many thought Northwestern-Michigan would be ugly. It was last year. But they thought it would fit the second definition. Instead, it fit the first.

For the second year in a row, 60 minutes of Northwestern football seemed to have the sky falling. Last year those 60 minutes were played in Iowa City. This year in Ann Arbor. There were no positives to glean from the Wildcats' performance. There were no highlight plays. There were no standout players. None.

But for a few reasons, and in a few different ways, Saturday wasn't as detrimental or troubling as it might have seemed.

Football is an emotional game. Emotions have a tendency to induce irrationality. Recency bias can override reason.

That will likely happen after Michigan's demolition of Northwestern on Saturday. The Wolverines dominated all three phases of the game, beginning with Jehu Chesson's kick-return touchdown to open the game, and concluding with a grinding 12-play touchdown drive to go up 38-0.

There was not a single moment Saturday when Northwestern looked like a better team than its East division opponent. But that's not to say the Wildcats can't still emerge as the top team in the West.

This was more about Michigan than Northwestern

Northwestern did not play a good game. That was clear to any and all viewers, and Pat Fitzgerald confirmed in the postgame press conference that he shared that view. He labelled his team's performance "terrible."

But this was not the Iowa game of last year. Not even close, in fact.

Sure, the beatdown was of similar proportions. But Northwestern didn't come out totally flat. Even in the second quarter, with the score 21-0, the Wildcats didn't look completely overmatched. They weren't playing mistake-riddled football. They weren't playing anywhere near the level at which Michigan was playing, but they weren't playing significantly below the level at which they played in, say, wins over Duke and Ball State.

"A year ago out in Iowa City, I thought that we got hit and lost momentum early, and then we didn't respond," Fitzgerald said after the game. "We didn't respond at all.

"I thought today, at times, we responded. Especially on defense, there were some times that we responded positively."

And he's right. The defense had its moments. Even the offense move the ball intermittently, even if infrequently. The game unravelled late in the second quarter, but for roughly 20 or 25 minutes, the Wildcats looked like at least an average Big Ten team, give their opponent.

Time and time again in his postgame press conference, Fitzgerald made a point to credit Michigan. When asked if this was the best defense he had seen yet this season, Fitzgerald was pretty matter-of-fact. "Yeah," he said. His lack, or a cliché, or coach-speak was telling. Dan Vitale unequivocally echoed his coach's opinion several minutes later.

Vitale acknowledge NU's mistakes too. "Just one-man breakdowns," he said. "Offense has to be an 11-man operation... You might have 10 guys doing the right thing, one guy makes a mistake, it can screw you."

It doesn't always "screw" you though. Northwestern has been far from a mistake-free football team this season. But the likes of Minnesota, Duke and Stanford were unable to turn those mistakes into meaningful ones. Michigan was more than capable.

Saturday exposed some of Northwestern's shortcomings, and confirmed that this team has its limitations. It has a firm ceiling that prevents it from reaching to the lofty heights at which Michigan resided Saturday.

But that doesn't mean Northwestern's first five games of 2015 were flukes. In fact, the opposite is true. Those games offer a much larger sample size than Saturday. There's a far greater chance that Saturday's depressing performance is the fluke, the exception to the rule.

And if you're going to lay an egg — if you're going to wildly underperform — you might as well do so against the best team on your schedule. Michigan was not going to be beaten today. Jim Harbaugh and his team, on homecoming in front of 110,000-plus fans, just weren't going to let that happen. Above all, this was just Michigan's day.

The Iowa game was always more important

Will next Saturday, on homecoming weekend in Evanston, be Northwestern's day? That's now the question. And to be honest, it was always going to be the question.

As discussed on Thursday's Pound The Talk podcast, this was a low risk, high reward game for NU. If the Wildcats won, they were a top 10 team and could no longer be ignored in the College Football Playoff conversation. If they lost, they were no longer a part of that conversation. But dreams of the Playoff were overly ambitious anyway. The more realistic goal is a Big Ten West division title, and if Northwestern were to beat Iowa next week, that would still be a realistic goal.

On the journey to Indianapolis, Oct. 17 was always going to be more momentous than Oct. 10. A win over Michigan but a loss to Iowa would've left the Wildcats staring up at the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten West driver's seat. But a loss to Michigan and a win over Iowa — which still doesn't seem like too big of an ask — would probably put Northwestern in that driver's seat.

College football is a sport of fluctuation

College football is just one big, drawn out, convoluted improv skit. What happens one Saturday doesn't necessarily tell you anything at all about what will happen the next. Clearly what happens on five Saturday's doesn't necessarily explain one. What happens on one doesn't necessarily explain five. Fluctuations in performance are widespread and severe.

Last year's loss at Iowa was the lowest of lows for Northwestern. But two weeks later brought the highest of highs at Notre Dame. The turnaround will have to come a week earlier in 2015. But there's no reason it can't.

Fitzgerald said he spoke to Vitale in the locker room after the game, and Vitale told him, "we're going to flush it, we're going to move on."

"We're a much better team than we showed today," Vitale said. "And we know that."