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Northwestern, don’t let the train pass you by

Even when positives are small and scarce, one can look at Duke and see some potential for better days ahead.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

Riley Leonard ran rampant, Jordan Waters worked wonders and the Blue Devils bedeviled Northwestern both on the ground and through the air with nearly 500 yards of total offense.

The better team did what it was supposed to do: win in dominant fashion. You saw it, I saw it, everyone saw it. It’s a tale that was told two weeks ago in Piscataway, New Jersey, and chances are it’ll be retold many of these next few Saturdays like Mister Rogers drilling fundamental life lessons into kids’ heads. It’s not a cause for panic, nor is it something to be satisfied about; it’s merely a tough reality.

What is one supposed to do with that information? Northwestern’s approach has remained constant since July: chug forward and try to leave bleakness behind.

“We have to detach from the result, identify the areas that we need to continue to improve upon,” head coach David Braun said after the loss. “And again, it’s really easy to sit back and point a finger, but specifically in regards to this week, that finger’s coming right back at me.”

Accountability is great, and Braun has displayed that quality repeatedly. Unfortunately, it’s merely a hint of positivity for the long-term future, and it hasn’t yet reflected itself on the scoreboard against a Power Five opponent. Yet, considering Northwestern is wandering through the desert right now, subtleties like that one or Anto Saka’s pass-rushing breakout are engines toward progress.

There’s a popular saying that goes, “Don’t let the world pass you by.” That, too, is a small engine toward progress. The NU fans who aren’t clicking “sim to next season” in their heads might be maintaining the optimism that investing themselves in the struggles of 2023 will serve as somewhat of a vehicle toward the unbridled joy of future success.

When a freight train swiftly runs over that vehicle — or smoothly breezes by it, as Duke’s rushers were doing to Northwestern tacklers — it’s especially tough to acknowledge the tiny vehicle’s presence. To that, I counter with the statement, “Don’t let the train pass you by.”

Literally, it’s paradoxical. Figuratively, sometimes the only thing to do in a state like Northwestern’s is to observe opponents’ rebuilding blueprints, and ponder how to follow them. Even as the royal blue train speeds away, take a good look at it.

Duke and NU have been compared so much as football programs and universities that connecting the two borders on cliche. But, it’s intriguing to consider that the Wildcats will leave Durham at the lowest point they’ve been in during the recent renewal of this series, while the Blue Devils might end up flying as high as ever.

You look at Leonard, who came to Duke as a three-star recruit in 2021 after the team suffered through the worst season of David Cutcliffe’s tenure. 247 Sports slotted him as the 58th-best quarterback in that class, and Brendan Sullivan was 55th. Two years later, Leonard has shot up NFL Draft boards and sliced his way toward becoming one of college football’s premier dual-threats. More importantly, he’s the centerpiece of a six-win turnaround that could balloon even higher.

You look at Mike Elko, the former defensive coordinator who filled Cutcliffe’s shoes in 2022 and immediately pulled out a nine-win season. In less than two years, he could spearhead a rebuild that ends up with Duke attaining its highest AP ranking in over 50 years.

You look at the Duke crowd, which demonstrated the limiting reality of being an academically elite institution with its sparseness on Saturday while also flashing its potential for capturing magic just 12 days earlier.

Even in a revamped Big Ten, Northwestern can become Duke, or at least get close. It probably won’t happen anytime soon, but it’s not impossible. This isn’t anything groundbreaking; it’s been said often.

Yet, in detaching oneself from another beatdown with more projected to come soon, sometimes all there is to do is dwell on that possibility and hope for better days ahead. And, ultimately, ramp up the work to mirror that paragon in the face of demoralizing results.