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Where Are We Wednesday: Hitting the panic button

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Saturday’s loss to Duke officially sounded the alarm.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Just last week, I sat in the exact spot I sit now, writing the exact same Where Are We Wednesday column that I write now. In that column, I advised Northwestern fans to take a step back for a moment and try to not formulate entire opinions about this year’s football team just yet. After all, they had only played two games, one of which came against a good-looking conference opponent and the other came against an FCS team.

That’s not all, however. I went as far to say that barring a loss against either or both of their next two opponents in Duke and Ohio, we wouldn’t be able to determine much about the state of the Wildcats.

Well, guess what? They lost! So maybe it is time to hit the panic button.

I don’t mean fully slam your hand down onto the button, nor do I mean lightly press it. Give it a firm press, putting enough pressure onto the button to ensure that it’s been activated.

We all saw what happened on the field last Saturday afternoon in Durham. The ‘Cats came out looking ghastly and immediately trailed 21-0 at the end of the first quarter. The Blue Devils extended their lead to 27-0 before the Wildcats finally showed some signs of life, largely due to the fact that Hunter Johnson was benched for Andrew Marty.

That change seemed to work well for Northwestern. At the half, they trailed 30-7, but in the second half, the ‘Cats came storming back. They were eventually able to get the score to within one touchdown, but it was too little too late, as they fell 30-23.

Now, here’s the real problem. The catalyst for the Wildcats’ comeback was Marty, who looked nothing short of stellar in his performance. He completed 11 of his 16 pass attempts for 151 yards and two touchdowns while rushing seven times for 44 yards and a touchdown, as well. During the second half, he was putting the team on his back and almost singlehandedly carrying them to victory.

Then he got hit from behind on a lengthy quarterback scramble, handed Duke the ball via a costly fumble, was injured on the play and was subsequently sidelined for the rest of the game.

Sigh.

Just when it seemed like the Wildcats had a sliver of hope, it was taken away by a hit from behind on their backup quarterback. It was shaping up to be a heroic story for Marty, but that just wasn’t how it was supposed to end. It wasn’t his moment, nor was it anybody else’s. The Northwestern Wildcats seemed doomed to lose that game after that play.

Fast forward to Monday afternoon, when Northwestern released its weekly depth chart outlining the changes made to the roster’s alignment ahead of the Wildcats’ dance with Ohio this Saturday. See if you can spot anything of interest at the quarterback position.

Yes, the ORs are back once again. We were without them for most of 2020 due to the presence of Peyton Ramsey, but they’ve made their return here. What’s even worse is that this tells us nothing about the injury status of Marty. If they sat him out as a simple precaution at the end of the Duke game, the ‘Cats may be okay. But if the injury is more severe, the storyline on the season shifts dramatically.

Let’s err on the side of caution for a moment and say that Marty’s injury is somewhat severe and it’ll cause him to miss multiple weeks of the season. What does Northwestern do? Against the Blue Devils, the ‘Cats turned to South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski, who completed just two of his seven pass attempts for 34 yards. If Hilinski starts against Ohio, the Wildcats should be fine, but what happens if the QB question marks remain as they head into conference play? What then?

On top of the ominous situation at quarterback, there have been some worrisome trends on the defensive side of the ball, one of the most notable being the fact that Northwestern gave up 30 first half points and 558 total yards to one of the worst teams in the ACC. Duke’s offense isn’t special by any means, so if the Wildcats’ defense isn’t able to shore up their massive mistakes by conference play, things could head south real quick.

In fact, maybe things are already there. Will Karmin already discussed the aspect of this season being 2019 all over again in his column on Monday, so I’ll only touch on this briefly. The similarities are there in both quarterback struggles and defensive issues. Obviously, the situations are different, with the Wildcats being under an entirely different set of offensive and defensive coordinator. On defense, maybe the problems stem from there, maybe not. Whatever the cause, the ‘Cats can’t seem to find a solution just yet.

And when you combine those issues with the lack of an effective quarterback, we all get a little closer to hitting the panic button.