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Where we are Wednesday: Coming back down to Earth

Saturday’s loss to Duke gives us a chance to embrace reality.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

This Wednesday happens to fall smack in the middle of the NFL’s Overreaction Week.

In pro football’s first week of action, six closing Vegas underdogs either won or tied, which lit a fuse to the gigantic TNT box of hot takes waiting to explode. All it took was a missed field goal and a Sunday Night Football snoozer to set New York Giants Twitter ablaze with paths to a 4-0 start. It once again revealed the recipe for blind optimism: come off a down year by defying gloomy preseason outlooks in the opener.

Now pour in some celebratory Guinness after a nationally-televised upset over a divisional rival, double the amount of time to dwell on said upset and sprinkle in some Big Ten West chaos. That should give you a taste of the hope surrounding Northwestern after it defeated Nebraska in Dublin.

That confidence didn’t disappear for good following NU’s home loss to Duke on Saturday. It just reminded everyone that the Wildcats are flawed, just like almost every other team in college football.

Duke’s up-tempo offense walked all over the ‘Cats on its first drive, just as Casey Thompson did two weeks prior. The difference was that it took much longer for Jim O’Neil’s unit to respond. Starting fast was something Pat Fitzgerald hammered home coming into this game. Yet, in an opportunity to show growth from 2021, Northwestern found itself in the same early 21-0 hole against the Blue Devils it was in 357 days earlier.

And then, as they did in Dublin and Durham, the ‘Cats clawed back. Spearheaded by Evan Hull’s brilliance, Northwestern slowly but surely put itself back in position to win. With the seconds ticking down and Ryan Hilinski marching down the field, it sure felt like Even-Year Magic™ had arrived in Evanston.

Hull’s ensuing fumble at the goal line, as stunning as it was, grounded us in reality. Even the team’s star, the guy who posted the most all-purpose yards in the country last week and put NU in position to tie the game in the first place, wasn’t immune to making a mistake at the worst possible moment.

It’s indicative of where Northwestern stands right now. There are reasons for optimism in a bunch of spots, from Hilinski’s improvement to the undermanned secondary’s knack for forcing turnovers. Those positives should (knock on wood) manifest themselves against Southern Illinois and Miami-Ohio. But they aren’t permanent, and the ‘Cats have plenty of mistakes to correct in every phase.

Unlike Week Zero, Northwestern’s run defense was really bad. The Blue Devils racked up a whopping 221 yards on the ground. That’s not particularly encouraging for the ‘Cats, who are going to face Braelon Allen, TreVeyon Henderson, Chase Brown and Mo Ibrahim in the coming weeks.

Behind the defensive line, the back seven struggled to cover and tackle well at the second level. Even starters who excelled against Nebraska, such as Cam Mitchell, were susceptible to big plays. As good as Hull has been thus far, Mike Bajakian’s unit doesn’t have enough vertical threats to keep pace with high-octane offenses.

Again, even with those weaknesses, it’s apparent that Fitz and Co. are in a better spot than they were at this point in 2021. What’s not clear is where exactly that spot lies. It’s true that no Big Ten West team has emerged as a conference threat yet. It’s true that Northwestern has an opportunity to be that team. But it’s also true that NU still has to prove itself, and really won’t have the opportunity to for another two weeks.

So welcome back to Evanston, and welcome back to Earth, ‘Cats. We don’t know where we’re headed next.