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Loss to Michigan another reality check for Northwestern in a season chock full of them

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A sad outcome, but one that most expected nonetheless.

Northwestern v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Don’t blame yourself. Everyone was too optimistic.

Not for this upcoming Michigan game per say, as every Inside NU staffer and rational Northwestern fan expected the ‘Cats to fall short in the Big House this Saturday, which they did to the tune of a 33-7 score. However, for the season as a whole, the majority was too high on how well the defending Big Ten West champs would perform in the 2021 season.

Check any season predictions piece or tweet (including the one our site did prior to opening week), and you’d see several prognosticators angling for an 8-4 or 9-3 campaign. Sure, most didn’t think a repeat division title was in store, but it was assumed that Northwestern being an above average Big Ten team was the status quo.

And that’s just not the case.

“It doesn’t always show up in the end result, but I see the moment to moment and play to play growth in a lot of young guys out there ... but I’m really disappointed in the way that we performed in the second half,” said Pat Fitzgerald following the loss. “I thought we played pretty solid in the first half of give ourselves a chance, and then we just kind of reverted back to bad habits that we’ve got to get out of our guys, like our tackling technique and our communication and protection.”

The infrastructure is a respectable one, but it’s not infallible. At the end of the day, one team (Michigan) employs superior talent throughout its roster and should win barring disaster, while the other primes itself on striking when the time is right. And that’s fine! Pat Fitzgerald is undoubtedly the greatest coach in Northwestern football’s history! Build him a damn statue the second he retires!

But the reality of that lifestyle is that the time isn’t always right. Northwestern returned next to nobody from the 2020 team that shocked the world, and the breaks of yesteryear (namely the other teams on their schedule being worse) haven’t returned. Most assumed that NU would simply remain better than programs that were putrid in 2020 like Michigan State and Duke, but mid-tier Power Five teams don’t have that luxury. The blue chips of the world can bank on year-to-year victories, while the middle class is guaranteed next to nothing (save for beating Illinois for the HAT).

Yesterday’s game as a whole served as a giant metaphor for this message. Michigan did what the better team does for 28 minutes of game time. The Wolverines didn’t play great, but they were firmly in control. Then Northwestern escaped the horrors of this dark world for two minutes via an Evan Hull 75-yard touchdown burst and a Coco Azema forced fumble.

Maybe this is who Northwestern is?! A threat to all the Big Ten powers that be due to their gritty, fearless nature.

No.

Reality hit the ‘Cats like the quarter-system midterms hit every Northwestern freshmen class. Run-fits were missed time and time again. Pressure from Michigan’s pro-heavy front seven either forced sacks Ryan Hilinski or terrible, off-platform throws on seemingly every pass attempt. NU did its part too, shooting itself in the foot with botched snaps and blocked punts aplenty. Add it all up, and you get a 26-point win that somehow didn’t even feel that close.

“We had them right where we wanted them,” said Chris Bergin, describing the team’s mood after heading into the locker room only down 10-7. “We really didn’t want to be in any other position than the one we were in coming in to the second half, and we got to come out of the half and play better [than we did]. Credit to them, they came out guns blazing, and we didn’t, so credit where credit is due.”

In his response, Bergin detailed how a team that plays as hard as they do and cares as much as they do can do anything. And he’s right, anything can happen in college football.

But that doesn’t mean it – in this case, beating teams with better on-paper talent – can always or even usually happen. As the fifth-year linebacker said, Michigan came out guns blazing in the second half, and the sad truth is that Northwestern doesn’t have the same guns to blaze.

That’s disappointing, but life is often not what anyone wants it to be. It doesn’t mean that you give up and accept defeat as a default state, but it does mean you shouldn’t react to failure or losses as unforgivable sins. Most people and teams have to deal with them several times each and every year.

Northwestern did accomplish feats of significance in Ann Arbor this weekend. The pass defense was lights out in the first half and still quite good in the second. The infamous first play meltdowns were avoided for a second week in a row, indicating that at least that squeaky wheel has finally been greased. Even in Ryan Hilinski’s worst start as a Wildcat to date, he did not reach the unplayable levels displayed way back in 2019 or in the first half of the loss to Duke earlier this season.

But Northwestern never had a chance because the reality is that Michigan is currently better at football. By a lot.

“They were a great team, they ran a great scheme and their guys played really, really well,” said Hilinski, describing the defense that gave him and the entire NU offense such great trouble on the field. “They made a lot of good plays, and we just made less of them.”

His head coach — ever the respectful admirer of his foes and their capabilities — echoed the same sentiment.

“They were exactly what we thought they’d be. Real physical up front of both sides of the ball, [running] backs that are as good as anyone in the country,” said Fitzgerald postgame. “I think [Cade McNamara’s] really poised. He does a really good job of taking what the defense gives him. Their receivers can take the top off. Their tight ends are long and can run. Their back end can fly around out there. So yeah, they were as advertised.”

Obviously, Fitz and his team would never acknowledge their being outclassed, but they’re also not detached from reality. Deep down, they know that perfect seasons are all but impossible for a team like them, and it’s much more about how they respond to setbacks than it is avoiding them in their entirety.

Last year was not a normal year for Northwestern. That was one of the greatest teams in program history, and the fight and cohesion that they embodied made for a truly awesome nine-game campaign.

The 2021 Wildcats are much closer to what is the status quo at NU – lacking in several areas, but competent enough that no one would call them an embarrassment. Coming off the outlier year, regression was staring most everybody in the face, yet fandom and belief got in the way of the most logical outcome.

Last year was a dream. This season is reality. It’s okay to say you didn’t enjoy the team’s loss in the Big House, but no defeat the ‘Cats suffer should be too surprising at this point.