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Where are we Wednesday: Looking on the bright side

A blowout loss is a blowout loss, but some things went right on Saturday.

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

In a familiar place… Attempting to prove progress… Jockeying for any position other than last in the B1G West — these are Northwestern’s dilemmas of the week. When was the last time this column actually rejoiced over the team’s state??

Last week, I opined that the ‘Cats’ win against UTEP elevated them from Hell to purgatory — knocking the stateside monkey off their back and setting them up for the chance to demonstrate progress. If you judge progress by wins, the victory versus the Miners led to no overarching improvement, given the immediate loss to Duke. But I try to remain an optimist when discussing Northwestern’s football team — much to the disdain of some Inside NU’s commenters, often counterintuitive even to my own brain — and I think there are bright spots to be found among the bleak 24-point blowout Duke laid on this past Saturday.

The ‘Cats’ contest in Durham was stacked with subtle implications that riddled the weekend showdown — a rematch for Northwestern, after a brutal Evan Hull fumble virtually lost it the game in 2022. A victory would thrust the program to a win percentage in the green for the first time since 2020. It would also mark a massive upset against a top 25 opponent. But being realistic means understanding that an outright win against the Blue Devils was improbable at best.

For David Braun and Co., the Week Three game was about demonstrating stability and a level of polish that’s long been lacking — keeping the turnover sheet clean, avoiding the dreaded yellow linen, notching an opening drive defensive stop. In pieces, these things have appeared in NU games sporadically, but a cohesive performance was what the ‘Cats were on the hunt for.

Northwestern left North Carolina with a loss — and it’s well-documented that there are no consolation prizes in football — but this sort of mythical all-around game was achieved to some extent. Duke won, 38-14, but NU produced the fewest turnovers it has in its last five games against Power Five opponents. It was penalized less than its opposition. Granted, it hasn’t quite figured out the opening drive defense yet…

The Blue Devils out-rushed the ‘Cats all day, totaling 268 yards on the ground with the plurality of those coming from quarterback Riley Leonard. In fact, every touchdown Duke scored on Saturday came on the ground.

Less than four minutes into competition, Jordan Waters found the endzone on a 24-yard rush. He found it again less than a minute into the second period. Northwestern’s front seven continue to be one of the weakest parts of the team, allowing 494 rushing yards through three games.

Ben Bryant flashed at times throughout the game, first finding A.J. Henning for a 14-yard score right before halftime, narrowing the deficit, 17-7. Still, the transfer finished with a 50% completion rate, 123 yards in the air and a 1-to-1 touchdown-interception ratio.

The second half, the third quarter specifically, is where Duke did its damage. Durham’s Devils put up 14 points in the third period, driving a cumulative 174 yards between its two scoring drives.

By the fourth quarter, both teams’ subs were in. The ‘Cats tallied a charity touchdown with 1:27 to play, as Brendan Sullivan rushed for six. The points didn’t matter for much besides softening the box score, as the game ended, 38-14.

You may have read that abbreviated recap and now find yourself asking how I see positives in NU’s outing. First, let me remind you of my optimistic streak. Second, the loss can’t be chalked up to dumb mistakes and errant decisions. Northwestern managed to commit only one penalty for eight yards. Bryant, despite his frequent uninspiring play, held onto the ball for the most part. And the defense withheld Duke from points for a near 12-minute stretch between the first and second quarter. When all typed out, lauding these actions as accomplishments might seem trivial and conciliatory.

Alas, a win is perpetually the goal, but for a program marred by controversy and instability, a loss on account of a fundamental talent difference feels better than a loss catalyzed by cringe-worthy penalties and mind-numbing fumbles. You might almost think, just for a moment, that recruiting might be more of an issue than coaching and public discourse. Is that necessarily a good thing? That’s a whole other discussion.

All this to say that on this Week Four Wednesday, Northwestern finds itself in the familiar position of dealing with a blowout loss. Still, it hasn’t totally backtracked on its potential to demonstrate forward progress, as games against less formidable opponents await and building blocks remain in place. And at least, for now, it is free from the grips of the bottom rung on the B1G West standings — that title currently resides with Matt Rhule’s Nebraska.