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Where are we Wednesday: Falling short of no expectations

The ‘Cats feel lost in a purple haze.

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

It’s been 690 days since Northwestern’s last win on U.S. soil. Yet somehow, that doesn’t feel like the story.

Rather, for a team with no expectations heading into its opener in Piscataway, Northwestern still managed to disappoint. With the ghost of the program’s most tumultuous offseason lingering, fans hoped to see something of promise for a team looking to change the narrative.

News flash: they weren’t given any of that. In simplest terms, Northwestern fell flat, sputtering its way to a 17-point loss, leaving fans questioning what a path back up the ladder even looks like. A game deemed winnable on the schedule, Northwestern, plagued by mishaps and poor execution, couldn’t shake off a performance reminiscent of last year’s shortcomings.

The problems started defensively, where Northwestern failed to apply any pressure on Rutgers QB Gavin Wimsatt, turning a weak spot for the Scarlet Knights into one of their strengths. Offensively, an emphasis on throwing the ball whenever possible led to choppy drives that stalled at midfield. Northwestern’s final rushing total — 22 attempts for 12 yards — in comparison to throwing the football 40 times paints a picture of the team as a whole: unbalanced and ineffective. That needs to change, and it starts with better play up front giving Ben Bryant and Cam Porter the time to make the right reads at the line of scrimmage.

Even with Brendan Sullivan orchestrating a touchdown drive in the waning moments of Sunday’s defeat, interim head coach David Braun was quick to reiterate the team moving forward with Bryant under center. Bryant’s 169 passing yards and two interceptions on 57% accuracy provided a murky picture of what to expect moving forward.

Early, Bryant looked good, lobbing a beautiful touch pass to A.J. Henning for a 26-yard completion. His arm strength and mobility impressed too, with a couple scampers helping the ‘Cats move the chains. Outside of that, Rutgers’ ability to overpower Northwestern’s offensive line frazzled the transfer, leading to poor accuracy on key throws and eventually two interceptions. A disappointing debut, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of leash he’s got with the capable Sullivan waiting in the wings.

Sticking with the offense, Henning’s first game showed glimpses of what Northwestern can be excited about moving forward. The Michigan transfer finished with four catches for 42 yards and two carries for one yard. For a team that doesn’t have many dynamic playmakers, the ‘Cats need to get the ball into his hands moving forward.

However, until the Wildcats find some production in the trenches, being outplayed will be the norm. And it translates to the defensive side, too. A lack of pressure on the quarterback and an inability to get off the field let Rutgers string together long time-consuming drives, tiring out a defense that couldn’t catch a break. If Rutgers exposed those weaknesses, imagine what it looks like against Duke or Penn State in the coming weeks. Figuring out ways to harass the pocket should be Braun’s number one priority, because without it, Northwestern’s tumble is bound to continue.

There were a couple of defensive bright spots: linebacker Bryce Gallagher was a force, tallying a career-high 19 tackles, while Devin Turner caused chaos by finding ways to make an impact on the back-end with five tackles. Those are two pieces to continue to build confidence around as the ‘Cats search for positives.

Looking to end its 12-game skid, Northwestern travels back home as 1.5-point underdogs against UTEP. While possibly jarring, the underdog mentality is something Northwestern needs to embody. With the smell of a 1-11 campaign, a culture of hazing, a mess of an offseason and a new interim head coach still swirling next to the Northwestern name, the ‘Cats are as “underdog” as it gets. Their backs have been up against the wall all offseason, and Rutgers pushed them deeper into the corner.

UTEP is a must-win game, not in terms of bowl aspirations or winning the Big Ten West (because that isn’t happening), but for the program as a whole. The schedule only gets harder with a trip to Duke and the Big Ten gauntlet on the horizon, and a winless Northwestern heading into early October with a game against Howard feels like a moment where rock bottom gets a whole lot deeper.

It’s hard to measure success for a team that’s gone through everything the ‘Cats have faced. But the performance at Rutgers certainly wasn’t it, and although a win doesn’t solve anything, it’s a building block to rebuild Northwestern football.

So no pressure, David Braun — but if there’s a time to instill some confidence in a team that hasn’t won in over a year, now’s the time.