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Northwestern's loss to Northern Illinois another indication of downward trend

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After two losses to open the season, can Northwestern turn things around?

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

You can try to find reasons to be optimistic. You can tell yourself that this 0-2 start is an aberration or a minor setback or the product of bad luck. You can read quotes from players or point out seemingly fixable things like "character and poise" and believe that the Wildcats are going to turn their season around. Or you can look at how Northwestern has played since last year's Ohio State loss and conclude that the program is in a free fall.

Henry Bushnell and I tackled this subject last week, and both of us were reluctant to declare, with any amount of certainty, that the program had slipped. This loss makes it a lot harder to believe that it hasn't. The Wildcats have gone 1-9 since Gameday set up in Evanston, and we've reached the point where bowl eligibility - something the Wildcats attained for seven straight seasons - doesn't even seem worth talking about. Not right now.

After an offseason filled with optimistic talk about how the 5-7 record in 2013 could be blamed on injuries and bad luck, Northwestern has opened the 2014 season by losing to two teams most everyone expected it to beat.

Neither performance has provided much reason to believe Northwestern is going to improve, either. The Wildcats were unprepared against Cal (though they looked better in the second half) and they were dominated at the line of scrimmage by a MAC team that was breaking in an entirely new front seven. That's not poor execution or an inability to adjust to the opponent's game plan. It's losing the battle good major conference teams should always win against non-major conference teams.

Why should we believe the Wildcats will fare any better against more physically imposing opposition in Big Ten play?

If you want to take something positive away from this, there's the fact that Northwestern has yet to begin its Big Ten slate. Which means that, technically, the Wildcats could still challenge for the division or conference title. But it's laughable to even consider that a realistic possibility this point. A more pertinent topic is whether Northwestern can win one Big Ten game. Illinois? Purdue? Maybe? Is that setting expectations too high?

Look, this is a bad loss. Maybe some of the errors Northwestern made over the first two weeks of the season can be corrected. Maybe the Wildcats will get better after a bye week and what should be an easy win over Western Illinois. Maybe a turnaround is imminent. But maybe it's not. This has been a rough run for Northwestern.