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Northwestern football, Chicago’s Big Ten existential crisis

I don’t know what to say, folks.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

I have never seen a press box this disinterested. The reporter sitting next to me departed at halftime. The 70 people in this room are all having their own side conversations. They chat about Oklahoma, debate the virtues of Auburn, and peer silently into their Tweetdeck monitors.

The wheels have fallen off the bus. With 7:51 remaining in the third quarter and Northwestern down 17-0, Paddy Fisher, Northwestern’s best player on the day so far, gets ejected for a targeting penalty. The three-possession deficit feels like a seatbelt made of titanium. Penn State scores twice more, once because Godwin Igwebuike got tripped the by the ref on a long Saquon Barkley run. The stadium empties out faster than Barkley can sprint toward the end zone.

Things get more and more absurd. There’s another pointless (and soft as heck) targeting ejection on Northwestern’s other best defensive player, Godwin Igwebuike. Northwestern plays its fourth quarter pump-up video, and it’s comical. The 40-50 remaining students are vaguely waving their hands, and the rest of the stadium remains seated. Northwestern, with 7:45 remaining in the game, does the thing where it plays its best highlight of the game (a 32-yard reception), as if that’s supposed to make you forget about what has transpired. They keep showing the positive highlights, even with Northwestern down 31-0. I’m sure Dave Eanet’s calls on meaningless plays can pump up the crowd. Matt Alviti then engineers a decent Northwestern drive as the game ends. He scrambles into the end zone for his second career rushing touchdown. The band blares “Go U Northwestern,” to the delight of the Northwestern fans who didn’t leave the hot, smoky confines of Ryan Field.

Back in the press box, it’s dawning on the media members that, in this short life we’ve been given, we may have invested too much time on football. We whittled so much of our lives away into empty memories, so much time spent wondering, projecting and thinking. And then we get to game day and this darn football team cannot give their quarterback more than a second in the pocket to throw. But it’s our job to waste time. For the fans, for whom football is optional, this agonizing boredom must be even worse.

Northwestern had a shot in this game. The defense repeatedly tore apart Penn State’s offensive line and did a great job limiting the Nittany Lions and Barkley early on. Penn State only averaged around 4 yards per play on offense through three quarters, and didn’t necessarily play like a Playoff hopeful. But it didn’t matter. An endless torrent of unforced errors from Northwestern handed Penn State the game.

Let’s run through the list:

  • Clayton Thorson, third-year starting quarterback, leaves his day with a fumble and two picks. He repeatedly misses throws, and made several questionable decisions that could’ve led to a fourth turnover. I could make a separate bullet point for each ill-advised sack and decision, but that would bore you. As if you weren’t bored already.
  • The two targeting penalties. Woof.
  • Justin Jackson’s pointless offensive facemask penalty on a long run.
  • Hunter Niswander’s punts. The 13-yarder in particular, but really all of them.
  • Repeated soft coverage on short passes, culminating in a whiffed tackle by Trae Williams.
  • Not covering Tommy Stevens on that first touchdown.
  • The offensive line, a week after getting whooped at Wisconsin, seemed to be a revolving door on 50 percent of the plays. A lot of times, it didn’t even look like they were out-muscled, like it did at Wisconsin. The communication was bad. People were blocking invisible defenders.

Look, Penn State is good. They have a very solid football team and could win the Big Ten. Heck, they could win the National Championship, if they sort out some of their problems. But they’re not Alabama. They aren’t steamrolling teams. Penn State should have probably lost at Iowa two weeks ago. Vegas thought that Penn State was about two touchdowns better than Northwestern, and that’s about right.

On the other hand, Northwestern probably isn’t very good at football, which is funny considering our entire staff predicted they’d be very good at football. It should be noted that Northwestern’s two wins this season are over two of the 15 worst teams in college football by S&P. But I still think they could’ve won this game. I don’t believe that Penn State is this much better, which makes the loss and final score even more frustrating. Northwestern is decent enough to eke out a 6-6 or 7-5 record. But does that really matter?

Maybe we should just live in this fantasy world.

We can just forget the protocol completely, and just assume this is reality.

With five minutes to game time on homecoming weekend, two-thirds of the student section stands were empty. The unseasonably hot October weather was near-perfect for spectators, and there was a top-five team in town. Alas, the energy in the stadium was essentially nonexistent. Maybe it was the shellacking at Duke, or the disappointment of Wisconsin that kept students in bed. Maybe it was the cancellation of the homecoming parade due to endless and ludicrously inconvenient construction on Sheridan Road. Whatever it was, the lack of crowd energy set the tone for this game.

An investment with no return breeds discontent. But the discontent of watching Northwestern’s 2017 season is a peculiar one. It’s a sleepy, dreary anger. It’s a saltiness that matches the grey skies and drab Evanston buildings that surround Ryan Field. As a longtime fan of Arsenal FC and the New York Mets, I know this feeling well. It’s the sleepy anger that comes with the knowledge that I will surely feel the same way in the very near future.

But what do we expect? Do we honestly expect championships at this point? Do we expect Big Ten contention? Every fan has different expectations. The coaches, the players, and the media all have expectations and solutions. It’s not even worth repeating the mantras in analysis anymore. Fire the offensive coordinator! Give Fitz a break! Thorson needs to be better!

From 10,000 feet in the air, these reactions to this game are all window dressing. What unifies all fans, ultimately, is an expectation of entertainment and effort, at some level. We don’t want to watch miserable football. No one ever wants to see Northwestern get blown out, even if the pain of a close loss can last for longer. Well, guess what: Northwestern imploded. After this demoralizing near-shutout loss, Northwestern’s stagnancy doesn’t even feel worth complaining about. Northwestern hasn’t beaten a top five team in decades, at least according to the BTN pregame show. But why should I care? Five of the seven Northwestern drives today in the second half ended in a three-and-out. It was unwatchable. I’m bored. Everybody here is bored. What you do next is up to you.

Let’s put a quote from the coach here, because that’s good journalistic practice. Fitz, on criticism of the offensive staff:

“I think any time we don’t have success it’s fair to criticize any of our staff. Any of those types of feelings as a fan are absolutely fair. But I look at things holistically. I always have.”

Alright, cool. Thanks for that. I also like to look at Inside NU holistically, which is why I selfishly publish rants instead of real stories.

Let’s reference Voltaire, because why not?

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not watched this football game: if you had not decided to attend: if you had scheduled a meeting for today: if you had not decided to become a fan: if you had not gained all your hope from glories in the 1990s: you would not be here reading these takes and sipping a cold PBR.”

Let’s talk about the weather. Let’s talk about the Cubs. Let’s talk about the best flavor of ice cream. Let’s talk about what I ordered from Chipotle on Thursday night.

The PA announcer says: “We invite you to stick around...”

Oh, and next week Northwestern is at Maryland at 2:30 p.m. CST. See you there!