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Where are we Wednesday: A low valley in a time of tumult

Northwestern football has provided a considerable number of woes in the last year, but few compare to last Saturday’s loss.

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Week Zero provided something Northwestern fans hadn’t received in quite some time: the sight of a football team that was energetic, resilient and, quite frankly, a fun viewing experience.

After a 2021 season that was one of the worst in recent memory, where Northwestern held a lead in just one of its Power Five games, that’s about all Wildcat fans could have hoped for.

Yet three and a half weeks subsequent to NU’s spirited, must-watch comeback win against Nebraska on the cosmopolitan stage, any radiant feelings regarding this team have scattered like a pack of geese over Lake Michigan. In fact, are we even sure that the ‘Cats’ Week Zero win even happened this same season?

To put it bluntly, Northwestern football has been extremely disappointing since the program’s Citrus Bowl victory on New Year’s Day 2021. The team’s 3-9 record last fall, quite honestly, overestimates how competitive the Wildcats were. Week in and week out, the offense struggled to gain yardage or score over 21 points, and the defense was among the worst in the nation against both the pass and the rush.

2021 gave us no shortage of heart-wrenching moments to choose from.

With rejuvenated fans packing Ryan Field to begin the year in a night game atmosphere, Kenneth Walker III and Michigan State quieted the noise on the first play from scrimmage. How about allowing Duke to create a 27-0 first-half lead, only to ever-so-slightly fail to come back? Getting ravaged 56-7 to Nebraska, whose head coach was one of the greater laughingstocks in the sport? Or even being bludgeoned 47-14 against your in-state rivals, who sported a new head man and hadn’t won against you since 2014?

And yet, here we are: four days following an even more embarrassing showing, an elephant in the room so large that it can’t be ignored.

Northwestern has had its fair share of trouble against non-conference opponents under Pat Fitzgerald, namely in 2018. But defeat at the hands of Akron or Duke does not nearly equate to what occurred on Saturday: losing to 13.5-point underdog Southern Illinois and becoming the first Power Five team to drop an FCS matchup this season, at home, in a stadium full of impressionable Wildcat fans.

When facing an FCS-level opponent, a team with the talent, coaching staff and resources that NU boasts should, frankly, face little challenge.

The ‘Cats field one of the best offensive linemen in the country in Peter Skoronski, a standout edge in Adetomiwa Adebawore and a premier back in Evan Hull. Factor in veteran O-linemen, an underrated receiving corps and tight end, and the ‘Cats put out a roster that was expected to win on Saturday. Further, Fitzgerald is regarded as one of the best head coaches in the sport, and his staff has leaps of experience at the collegiate and NFL levels. There’s no excuse for this group to be outmatched the way it was, regardless of injuries.

For as poor as the 2021 squad was, even it was capable of handling an FCS team in Indiana State. The recipe for success? Control the line of scrimmage, establish an unstoppable rushing attack and play suffocating defense.

Through three games, Northwestern’s current team has not been capable of matching that lowly mark established by its predecessor. Even when it finally avoided an early deficit, NU could not command the game, ward off SIU or ultimately get over the hump.

In 2018, Fitzgerald rallied his troops to a 9-5 record and a Holiday Bowl victory despite a 1-3 beginning that featured the two aforementioned losses. That Northwestern squad possessed a veteran, rather reliable quarterback in Clayton Thorson; a solid defensive line in Joe Gaziano, Jordan Thompson and Earnest Brown IV; promising linebacker cornerstones in Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher; and sound play in the back-end with Montre Hardage, Travis Whillock and J.R. Pace.

This current Northwestern team, on the other hand, has a quarterback who has rarely stepped up in times of need since Week Zero, a defensive line that cannot consistently make stops or generate pressure, rampant inexperience and poor play among the linebackers, and an injury-marred secondary.

In other words, the even-year magic from four seasons prior probably can’t be extrapolated to 2022.

Seeing Pat Fitzgerald triumphantly raise the Keough-Naughton College Memorial Football Trophy on that Dublin night presented a fantastical glimpse of what the Wildcats could do later in the year: hoist a bowl game trophy of their own in December or January. Based on the performance we witnessed on Aug. 27, that seemed like a decently realistic possibility.

What’s become clear in late September, though, is that the Guinness buzz has faded considerably. Northwestern is still in search of that clinquant pot of gold, finding instead a devious trick — and a new low — from a Saluki-disguised leprechaun in danger of tarnishing the rest of its season and the program’s very future.