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Northwestern must make it a question if it will lose, not how it will

The final four games may not produce wins, but they need to produce some enthusiasm.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress / USA TODAY NETWORK

If someone told you last weekend that Iowa would score 33 points and punt once in a game against an opponent from a prominent conference, what would you have said?

For nearly every Power Five team and its fanbase, the answer would be, “You’re out of your mind.” And if the Hawkeyes somehow pulled that off against their team, their reaction would likely involve a prolonged sense of shock.

Yesterday, that’s exactly what the 131st and worst total offense in the FBS did. This wasn’t against South Dakota State nor Nevada, this was against Northwestern. Yet, with the possible exception of Iowa’s first drive, when Kaleb Johnson and Spencer Petras came out guns blazing, there was no shock. Instead, there was apathy among NU fans — and lots of it.

The ‘Cats are approaching a point where the uncertainty of their games now revolves around how they will fail on a given day, not if they will. In its last three conference games, Northwestern went from failing to capitalize on turnovers in Happy Valley, to getting its secondary shredded by Wisconsin’s Chimere Dike on Homecoming weekend, to giving up backbreaking run after backbreaking run in College Park. It’s a cruel coincidence that two of Northwestern’s biggest weaknesses against Iowa were projected to be its two biggest strengths leading up to and immediately following Dublin: its offensive line and its rushing attack.

The Wildcats gave up seven sacks and its backs rushed for an average of 2.7 yards per carry. If the defense is going to surrender 33 points to a sputtering Iowa offense, then there is no chance of a win in the cards.

It’s almost as if Northwestern has come full circle. It has proven it can lose in nearly every way, to every kind of opponent. In the same sense, it’s a full-circle moment for the fanbase, which can feel the inevitability of losses coming. So, there is no surprise when they arrive.

With the toughest stretch of Northwestern’s schedule on that horizon, the apathy is likely only going to grow. After a loss like this, when NU failed in what seemed to be the most improbable way, returning to a home matchup with second-ranked Ohio State is not what anyone needs. The ‘Cats could not break 10 points against the Hawkeyes until garbage time, and they are now set to face a team that dropped 54 against Iowa with ease.

Needless to say, there are few expectations for next week, if any. What matters now is how the team can build a foundation for 2023 as a whole.

“For the team to finish strong, we’ve just [got to] restore the pride of the program and prove to not only ourselves but everyone else that we are a good team,” Evan Hull said after the game. “It’s tough because we have talented players, we have good coaches, but it’s not coming together right now.”

Hull also noted that racking up some wins down the stretch is critical to achieving that, but there’s a very real possibility that those do not come. After Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois await the ‘Cats. To give the program pride, Northwestern has to show that it can at least be competitive in a few aspects in order to make a case that it has improved in any way from last season.

NU’s game on the last weekend of October 2021 had a similar aura connected with it. Against the Golden Gophers, Northwestern also lost in a somewhat improbable way. The defense allowed a depleted rushing attack to run all over Ryan Field in a 41-14 blowout.

It evoked apathy not because it all but eliminated any chance of bowl eligibility, but because it demonstrated that Northwestern could not even stay competitive. It set the tone for a horrible end to the season, in which NU didn’t score more than 14 points and lost every game but one by at least 18.

For the ‘Cats to go into 2023 with renewed hope, the team has to show that it is capable of hanging around in Big Ten games. Given the quality of play Northwestern will face, that does not have to be every game. But because that bar is so low, NU will have an even more sour taste in its mouth at the end of this season if it fails to even come close to a win in a game or two.

The close tilts on the road against Penn State and Maryland produced optimism by signaling that competitive football could be possible in Evanston. However, the ‘Cats followed those up with two blowout losses in which they allowed two quarterbacks with an average quarterback rating of 45 to put up an average mark of 88.2. They revealed that if anything is consistent about this Northwestern team, it is that it will find a new way to lose almost every week.

Apathy arrived in Evanston long ago, and it’s beginning to become entrenched in this fanbase. In the final month of the 2022 season, Northwestern needs to eliminate that first before looking toward achieving higher goals, even a goal as small as winning a game.