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Where are we Wednesday: Back in the abyss

WE ARE (in trouble)!

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The music that happens to be blaring through my headphones right now is “We’re Back,” a 2021 rock song by the Valley of Wolves. The song’s exactly what the title implies: a catchy, energizing tune about a triumphant return.

Over this last week-and-a-half back on campus, it has become my go-to hype-up song, for lack of a better term. It captured my excitement about returning to Evanston as a sophomore. “We’re back,” lead singer Will Champlin belts out in the hook. “‘Cause legends never die.”

Those words rang true before I even heard the song when Northwestern prevailed over Nebraska in Dublin one month and a day ago. It seemed like the legends of Even Year Magic, of confounding prognosticators everywhere — stories I only knew by word of mouth as someone who grew up more than 800 miles away from Ryan Field — were immortal.

It turns out those legends may be specters. They’re ghosts of the 1980s and the reverberation of sarcastically torn-down goalposts hitting the ground. Heck, if you want to call the aura from 2021 an evil spirit, it might be here too. What’s certain after Northwestern’s 17-14 loss to Miami (OH) last Saturday is that we’re back.

‘Cause legends. Never. Die.

That’s not to say these ‘Cats mirror the ones of the Dark Ages. They don’t. But while a nightmare may not be one’s reality — or even remotely close — it can dominate it.

Yes, Northwestern lost all of its regular season non-conference games in 2018. Two of those came against an eight-win Duke team and a Notre Dame squad that was undefeated and ranked third in the country heading into their Week Nine tilt with the ‘Cats.

Yet four years later, the situation is starkly different. The second-best team Northwestern has lost to outside of the Big Ten would either be a Southern Illinois team that gave up 64 points to Incarnate Word or a Miami team that came into Evanston and won with just 57 passing yards from its backup quarterback.

The most alarming thing about the losing streak is that there’s no consistent problem or solution. Everyone seemed to be calling for Jim O’Neil’s head following the defeat to SIU, yet his defense played well for the most part against the RedHawks. The rushing attack, which has undoubtedly been Northwestern’s greatest strength in its first three games, fell flat. The ‘Cats didn’t fall behind early as they typically have and still lost. No matter what combination of positives the ‘Cats pull out of their pocket on a given Saturday, their negatives have managed to outweigh them time and time again.

Teams that thrive off being the underdog in a trap game tend to have one strength they can consistently rely on, even if it fails to produce winning football 75% of the time. For the Salukis, it was their aerial attack. Miami had its strong run defense. From what the past month has shown, NU’s winning formula involves a heavy dose of Evan Hull. That’s really only efficient when a team can build an early lead, which the ‘Cats haven’t been able to do once this season.

That’s not encouraging to think about with Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota and other superior Big Ten teams looming. Most of those squads have rushing attacks that slice holes into slow linebacking corps like Northwestern’s with the precision of a machete. There is a very real chance that the ‘Cats end at 1-11 and finish with their worst record since they went winless in 1989.

Taking a look back at Inside NU’s record predictions, the (mostly) consensus expectation was that Northwestern would at least improve on its horrid 2021 season. And the Wildcats aren’t even on track to do that.

Last season, one could make the case that slivers of hope lingered all the way until Halloween when Northwestern’s 41-14 home loss to Minnesota effectively ended any dreams of bowl eligibility. A blowout loss on national television in Happy Valley this weekend would do the same, only this time with no end in sight.

That being said, Northwestern is weird. Like a person wearing shorts in 30-degree weather type of weird. Common logic would suggest that a reeling 1-3 NU team shouldn’t have beaten a ranked Michigan State team on the road in 2018. But a multi-score loss against the Nittany Lions seems all but inevitable at the moment. Is an upset possible? Sure. But it’s a miracle few would bank on, especially heading into State College this weekend.

Sounds familiar to 11 months ago? Well, we’re back.