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Where Are We Wednesday: Hurting yet again

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Sigh.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Here’s the deal, I’ve got good news and bad news for you, and you get to decide which you want to hear first.

You want the good news first?

Okay, here’s what I’ve got. You, the reader, are about to be halfway through the work week, and a weekend full of football will arrive soon enough. Plus, there’s Thursday Night Football tomorrow, if that’s your thing!

Now, for the bad news: Northwestern football is really bad. Sorry to spoil your day.

Enough with the conversationalist antics on my part. The sad, and particularly peculiar, reality of the situation is that Northwestern football is bad in a way that no one could have possibly imagined.

This team is not the 2019 version of the Wildcats, as they don’t feature an anemic offense that lacks a quarterback fit to lead. Sure, the Hunter Johnson experiment appears to have failed yet again and the Andrew Marty party was short-lived, but Ryan Hilinski looks competent and has plenty of time to learn and grow into the position.

Rather, it’s the defense that’s failing Northwestern. That’s a phrase that has hardly ever been uttered about the ‘Cats while under the command of Pat Fitzgerald. However, with the departure of Mike Hankwitz and a good chunk of defensive production, as well as the addition of new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, the Wildcats have sputtered defensively, and the old “bend, don’t break” ideology often preached under Coach Hank has been thrown out of the window.

Who exactly is to blame for the horrific defensive play is a conversation for another day. Regardless of that, the defensive regression we’ve witnessed from 2020 to 2021 has been nothing short of shocking. In 2020, Northwestern finished with a top five defense in the country statistically. That impressive accolade also meant that the ‘Cats had the best scoring defense and best passing defense in the entire Big Ten, as well as a rushing defense that finished in the top half of the conference.

When you look at the numbers now, five games into the 2021 season, they tell a vastly different story. As of now, the Wildcats are giving up the second most points in the conference, ahead of only Indiana. Their passing defense, in terms of yards allowed per game, has slid all the way down to eighth in the conference. Meanwhile, their rush defense has crashed all the way down to last in the conference, with NU allowing 234.2 rushing yards per game. The team in 13th? The Ohio State Buckeyes, who are currently allowing just 146.4 rushing yards per game.

That difference between 13th and 14th comes out to be 87.8 rushing yards per game. For reference, the difference between the 13th spot and the fourth best rushing defense, which belongs to Penn State, is just 34.8 yards. These numbers from Northwestern aren’t merely unimpressive, they’re nothing short of dreadful. For some, they may cause some mental strain just from looking at them, and for a select few, they may even be physically painful to observe.

All jokes aside, something has to be done about the lack of defense. As the Wildcats’ season progresses, it will only get more difficult. While Wisconsin hasn’t proven to be as mighty of a foe as once feared, both Michigan and Iowa present huge challenges for the ‘Cats — specifically for their defense. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten with an average of 255 rushing yards per game. Two of the other top four rushing offenses, Michigan State and Nebraska, have already had their averages boosted by extremely strong outings against Northwestern.

While Iowa isn’t anywhere near as much of a threat as Michigan is on the ground, its defense is daunting. The Hawkeyes are first in the Big Ten in scoring defense and sit in the top three in both run defense and pass defense. Overall, both are pretty much guaranteed losses for the Wildcats barring some sort of miracle.

In fact, if we dive even deeper into Northwestern’s remaining schedule, fewer and fewer games look winnable. If the Duke game wasn’t enough to indicate the current state of the ‘Cats, the Nebraska game should have answered any remaining questions. The Wildcats are in rough shape. Every game remaining on the schedule, aside from Michigan and Iowa, are pretty much question marks. There is a nonzero — albeit still low — chance that NU finishes this season at 2-10.

Of course, that’s probably a pessimistic view. Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois are all winnable games, and an upset (yes, upset) of Rutgers would put the Wildcats at 6-6 and at bowl eligibility. That seems like a long shot right now, but this bye week could not have come at a better time for Northwestern. It gives them time to regroup after an extremely difficult loss in Lincoln and begin preparing for their game against the Scarlet Knights.

As for all of us, though, I think it’s best we prepare to get hurt again.