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Northwestern is stuck in traffic in the middle of New Jersey

It could very well get worse before it gets better.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Driving through northern New Jersey, you see lots of highways, and lots of gas stations, and lots of swamps. Suburbia is nestled away inside tall pine trees, well out of sight. I associate it with friends encountering comically-bad NJ Transit train delays and drivers cursing each other out on the way to work, while my dad associates it with Bill Parcells’ coarse Jersey accent screeching just a few miles down the road from the Mill Creek Marsh in Secaucus. It’s not the most appealing of sights, sounds or smells, which is why the Garden State is America’s right armpit.

People clown on New Jersey, New Yorkers like me especially. It’s warranted. But, the ugliness that Jersey offers is the zit that helps form the Tri-State Area’s distinct, uniquely beautiful face. Harping on it is what brings people closer to that identity.

I’d like to think that the Big Ten West is America’s left armpit. It’s hideous, disgusting and on the verge of extinction, but it’s also a part of Northwestern’s identity that’s embraced, more often than not. When watching Minnesota and Nebraska play a low-scoring Thursday night game that the word “chaotic” criminally undersells, pride came to the forefront. The general reaction was less, “Wow, that was some weird football,” and more like, “Wow, Rutgers-Northwestern could be even more hilarious in three days... and it’s on CBS!”

Ironically, in the wake of the hazing and racism scandals surrounding Northwestern’s football program this summer, that on-field sloppiness was a solace that many members of the NU community seemed to chase. Even if the Wildcats played ugly football in a tight loss to Rutgers, which appeared to be the worst team on Northwestern’s conference slate, there would be some positives to help the community recover. Phrases like “move past” and “move forward” have frequently been thrown around, because anything good would mark a leap in the right direction.

Whether they’ve happened emotionally or physically, there have been countless drives to SHI Stadium through a traffic-congested northern New Jersey highway since July. A pursuit of that Big Ten West stench couldn’t come soon enough because it emitted normalcy and unity. Just ask David Braun, who said that Sunday was “the lightest” he had felt since taking over as the interim head coach.

Unfortunately, armpits tend to stink most when it’s 90 degrees outside.

There really isn’t a point in psychoanalyzing what happened on Sunday afternoon, since the same thought process and conclusion are going to be carried out and reached over and over again for the next 12 weeks. There’s also not much to say that isn’t already obvious. The Scarlet Knights dominated Northwestern on both sides of the line of scrimmage, which rendered the positives the ‘Cats had as almost meaningless. It’s difficult to even identify three opponents on the schedule that NU has a better chance of beating than Rutgers, which only makes the 24-7 loss more discouraging.

A few schematic adjustments will not be enough to get Northwestern out of this hole. Everyone knows that. There’s a decent chance that the on-field results become even worse in the coming weeks, and the worst part is that none of it really matters. Whether the Wildcats were to win 49-0 against UTEP or lose their next 11 games, the level of apathy from the fanbase would probably remain close to where it is right now. Even if Sunday’s positives — like A.J. Henning’s separation and Devin Turner’s physicality — continue to manifest themselves the rest of the way, it’s unlikely that the plan for 2024 and beyond changes dramatically.

The Rutgers loss should serve as a strong reminder that moving forward requires growth, which is not a flash in the pan. It takes time, both on the field and off of it. Righting the ship and truly moving away from something as monumental as the hazing scandal in just eight weeks — or even four months — is impossible for any team to fully do.

Instead of trying to chase a familiar identity in a season that means little, Northwestern needs to build the foundation of a new one to set its transition in motion.

Schematically, NU showed signs of doing that. The air attack seemed much more dangerous than last year with Cam Johnson and Henning as threats, Ben Bryant had some good moments and the secondary played with great discipline on deeper routes. The defense also looked better in the second half than it did in the first.

Those are small steps in the right direction, and they’re each worth appreciating. But, when competitive football in Big Ten play appears to be light years away, it’s immensely difficult to consider them as such.

Much of the groundwork is going to be done off the field away from the public eye: continuing to build a new locker room environment, adjusting to Braun, Braun adapting to the rigors of the Big Ten, winning back a portion of the fanbase that’s now apathetic, players coming to terms with the fact that they still represent a vehicle to success for an administration they heavily criticized.

It’s an unenviable task. The action on coming Saturdays isn’t going to expedite or slow that long process. From the perspective of fans who haven’t gone through the 1980s, it might feel like walking through the desert in a drought (which is not unlike what Piscataway physically felt like on Sunday).

There’s no right or wrong way to deal with it; everyone’s connection to the program is unique. All there is to know is that the drive through North Jersey appears to be slower than the George Washington Bridge at the end of Labor Day Weekend. It will wreak for a while. Football alone, even if it gives off a more familiar smell, isn’t going to wipe the stench away.