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Where Are We Wednesday: Regressing yet again

Last Saturday’s loss to Michigan hit the reset button.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Just two weeks ago, in their win against Rutgers, it looked like the Wildcats had finally gained some momentum. In what had truly been a downhill season up to that point, the ‘Cats held the Scarlet Knights to just seven points and looked legit on the defensive side of the ball for the first time in 2021.

Yet, just a week and a half later, it seems that Northwestern is back to square one after its blowout 33-7 loss to Michigan this past Saturday.

Dear Mr. Momentum, why must you be so fickle?

It’s difficult to describe what we witnessed on the field just four days ago. On one hand, there were improvements defensively. The ‘Cats didn’t give up any big play touchdowns through the air or on the ground, unlike how they performed against Nebraska. They didn’t give up many huge plays at all, actually.

Instead, they were methodically picked apart by the Wolverines’ offense. Bit by bit, Michigan chipped away at an inferior Northwestern team, with running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins leading the charge. The two-headed monster of a rushing attack combined for 229 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Corum himself averaged 6.3 yards per carry, while Haskins averaged 4.8 for good measure.

Look, it wasn’t entirely bad. In fact, the first half was pretty solid, at least defensively. The Wildcats held Michigan to just 10 points, due in large part to two huge goal line stands by the defense, one of which ended in a clutch forced fumble by Coco Azema that was recovered by Chris Bergin. Offensively, Northwestern stalled entirely aside from a 75-yard rushing touchdown by Evan Hull near the end of the second quarter. That score meant the ‘Cats were down by just three heading into halftime, much to the surprise of everyone watching.

Then the third quarter happened. The Wolverines added 17 points to their total, put the game out of reach and never looked back, much to the expectations of everyone watching.

So where are we now? Relapsing. Flailing. Falling back to square one. It may not be the square one we were at after Duke or after Nebraska, but it’s square one nonetheless. Sure, Michigan is a great team. They’re ranked in the top 10 for a reason. However, with Northwestern playing how it played in Ann Arbor — and an offense that recorded just 233 yards for the entire game while its defense was worn out from constant impressive runs by Corum and Haskins — served as a reminder that underwhelming play is not the exception for this team, but the norm. Rutgers was a mere facade, a mirage of impressive play to keep us engaged for just another week.

And now we’re here, floundering after another beatdown at the hands of a far superior team. Remember last week when people were saying that the Wildcats were in control of their own destiny in terms of winning the Big Ten West? That’s gone out of the window. Is it still possible? Yes. Is it even remotely possible? That’s another story. The remaining schedule sees only Big Ten West foes, with the next opponent up rolling into Evanston as the hottest team in the division.

Yes, that would be the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The same Golden Gophers who were 30-point favorites over Bowling Green and lost 14-10 at home. They’ve now won three games in a row over Purdue, Nebraska and Maryland and somehow sit in legitimate position to represent the West in Indianapolis come December. They’re doing this without Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year candidate Mohamed Ibrahim, by the way, who was sidelined with a season-ending injury in the first game of the year.

That is the team that the Wildcats now have to prepare for. After that, it’s another top 10 opponent in Iowa. To round out the season, it’s Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois. This division, believe it or not, is no pushover. Sure, it often lives in the Big Ten East’s overwhelmingly large shadow and is sometimes mocked for its inferiority, but the Big Ten West still competes. That competition is now what stands between the Wildcats and Indianapolis, between the Wildcats and bowl eligibility, even.

For that to happen, though, the ‘Cats need to get momentum back on their side.