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As Northwestern falls yet again, postseason chances and future aspirations dwindle

Football’s prospects — for the rest of this season and beyond — appear increasingly grim.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

You can’t lie, you had some hope that Northwestern would somehow come back and upset Iowa last night.

There’s no need to fib, I felt it too. Everyone that stuck around in Ryan Field stayed for that hope. Everyone who decided to keep watching on TV instead of switching to a far more appealing football game kept it on to hope.

The reality of the situation, though, is that we were all a bit foolish to feel that way.

Luckily, our hopes were shut down pretty quickly. Almost immediately after getting the ball back in the final two minutes of action down only five points, Andrew Marty threw an errant pass that landed in the hands of Iowa defensive back Dane Belton, slamming the door on any comeback. From there, the Hawkeyes burned the clock to zero. Ballgame.

It was almost as if the Football Gods said to us, “You’ve been through enough. You don’t need to stress this game too much. It’s not happening.”

But they did give us hope, and while it was good to feel that in the moment, the end result was the same: disappointment and regret.

We all know that this iteration of Northwestern football is not up to par, that much is clear. Yet just a few weeks ago, there were talks of the ‘Cats still going bowling. Of course, those talks centered around Northwestern being a five win team and potentially sneaking into a low-tier bowl based on academic performance, but the talks persisted nonetheless.

Now, the remaining schedule looks all the more daunting. Wisconsin is one of the hottest teams in college football. at the moment. Purdue has knocked off two top five teams this season and has one of the best wide receivers in the country on their squad. Even Illinois, the team we so often make fun of for being the little brother of our rivalry in recent years, has looked impressive, having just held No. 20 Minnesota to just six points in an upset victory.

Yes, that’s the same Minnesota team that just hung 41 points on the Wildcats a week ago.

At this point, finishing with a 3-9 record seems like the most realistic result. A 4-8 record is unlikely, 5-7 appears near impossible and finishing an even 6-6 would be nothing short of a miracle. The signs of an outcome as poor as this have persisted all season, and now we’re faced with a reality where the yearly enjoyment of keeping the HAT is in doubt.

If a 3-9 season is the end result, things could go one of two ways.

The first, and more unlikely possibility, is that the Wildcats bounce back from their poor performance and have a far more impressive 2022 season. We saw this happen after 2019, but of course, the situations are far different.

For one, the fault is now partially flipped onto the defense. In 2019, the problems laid all on the offense and its coordinator, as the Wildcats had no quarterback and Mick McCall was coordinating one of the worst offenses in college football. The following season, as we all know, the additions of Peyton Ramsey and Mike Bajakian combined perfectly with an elite defense. The result was a seven win season in a modified COVID year.

The other, far more likely possibility, however, is that the issues we’re seeing on the field right now continue into next season and beyond.

At this moment, it’s unclear whether or not the ‘Cats will be looking to the transfer portal for a quarterback this offseason. Ryan Hilinski, while he’s struggled this year, is only a sophomore and has plenty of time to develop. Even if Northwestern were to do so, an impressive quarterback can’t fix a defense, and even if the ‘Cats were to land one or two defensive transfers, they’re not likely to solve every problem.

That’s only one issue with having bad seasons like this, though. Another problem is that it may cause recruits to question whether they’re making the right choice to come to Northwestern in the first place. The ‘Cats already lost one recruit in Trevon Howard just last week, and while we can only speculate the reason, it’s possible that Northwestern’s performance on the field played a role. Pitching a rising program in college football is difficult to do when faced with the possibility of going 3-9 in two of your last three seasons.

Is it possible that the Wildcats’ recruiting class doesn’t take a hit? Absolutely. Things could be perfectly fine. But the fact of the matter is that it’s something to be considered when evaluating the future of Northwestern football, both this season and beyond.

Following the game last night, Marty stood at the podium for a postgame presser. He appeared distraught, and understandably so, having just played what was likely his final game at Ryan Field.

“We gave ourselves opportunities to win that game, and that’s what hurts the most,” he said.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.