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Northwestern Wildcats’ season begins at Maryland

The Northwestern Wildcats’ dreams of winning the Big Ten are surely dead after back-to-back losses to open Big Ten season. Now they have to salvage what they can.

Justin Jackson, Northwestern Wildcats, Ahki Muhammad, Nevada Wolf Pack

Northwestern fans do not want to hear it. Not the ones who bought into the Big Ten title dreams and are tired of 6-6 bowl games. They have a point. The Wildcats at a certain point should not settle for lower-tier bowl games.

They have a point.

The Wildcats at a certain point should not settle for lower-tier bowl games. At some point, Pat Fitzgerald has to stop accumulating wins and gaining distance from Northwestern’s putrid history and actually compete for a Big Ten title.

Northwestern in Fitzgerald’s decade in Evanston has never really challenged for the Big Ten. Three January bowl games are nice, but that trophy case is pretty bare. And fans are slowly dissatisfied with Pinstripe Bowl trophies.

This season was supposed to be that year the Wildcats took a step forward. The team had the veteran leadership and the schedule to do so. Their tests were early and they would know exactly what kind of season they would have.

Five games into the season, Northwestern is still winless against Power Five teams, losing to Duke in the non-conference season. The two big games to start the conference season ended in disaster for the Wildcats. They lost at Wisconsin and then got shellacked and dominated against Penn State.

Maybe this was expected. Go back and look at my predictions for the season and I did not see Northwestern getting to the “promised land” this year. The lines on both sides simply were too much of a question mark. And everything gets built up from there.

Through the first five games of the season, Northwestern’s defensive line has slowly grown into a strength. Samdup Miller, Tyler Lancaster, Jordan Thompson and Joe Gaziano have started getting pressure and stopping the run. They were critical to the Wildcats’ stellar performance against Saquon Barkley.

The Wildcats’ offensive line? That has hardly gotten better. Clayton Thorson still has little time to throw. Justin Jackson is averaging 67.8 yards per game. The star senior back is not on pace for his fourth 1,000-yard rushing season.

The team needs a break from the daunting defensive lines it has faced. And against Wisconsin, Northwestern proved it could score enough. The supposedly lighter competition will help the Wildcats get themselves back on track.

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The bigger questions about whether Northwestern should aspire to a mid-tier bowl game or not will be put aside. The decision on changing coaches will come after the season ends. The players are not about to pack it in for the season. Who knows if that is enough to save their jobs. That evaluation comes after the season.

But Northwestern still has a season to play. And what kind of team this is gets determined in the next seven weeks. Starting with the Maryland game — the first conference game NU can fairly say the team should win.

This is the point where Northwestern’s season will truly begin.

The Wildcats are 2-3. On their list of goals for every year, there is still the baseline goal of going to and winning a bowl game that is still achievable. It is something to salvage from this season. And that is what is left to determine the rest of this season.

Talk to anyone and they would probably say Northwestern is as good as it has ever been. And it is true, the Wildcats have reached a level of consistency their program has never reached before. But they have also missed a bowl game in two of the past four seasons since that supposed breakthrough Gator Bowl win.

This season could quickly resemble that 2012 season when Northwestern had all the skill position talent returning and yet failed to qualify for a bowl game. Northwestern only worked to repeat that five-win season the following year in Trevor Siemian’s senior year.

Those were the kind of seasons Northwestern though the program had grown past. And that is what the team has left to prove this year.

This should still be a bowl team for Northwestern. The team may not be good enough to challenge for a Big Ten West title but it is certainly talented enough to meet this baseline.

The way the Wildcats played through the non-conference season leaves some doubt still. Unbelievably there is still that doubt.

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And so the Wildcats begin this seven-week sprint to the finish. Every game feels manageable. Michigan State is the only ranked team remaining on the schedule. Every other team feels beatable if the most optimistic version of Northwestern shows up.

The Wildcats are not likely to go 7-0 and finish with nine wins. But there is no reason to think the Wildcats cannot find four wins against the Terrapins (on their fourth quarter), the Cornhuskers and Golden Gophers (both have been up and down) and the always struggling Illini.

Then again, the road is not easy for Northwestern. Not with that shaky offensive line and a run game the team cannot get going. The Wildcats have not inspired much faith in the last five weeks. These optimistic views of getting to seven or eight wins are borne from those early season expectations the Wildcats have already failed to meet.

The intrigue for this Northwestern team really begins now. The championship dreams are over. The Wildcats must salvage something from this season.

Rally for a bowl berth — any bowl berth — and big questions remain about the program but at least the team has firmed its floor and the base for the program. The season may still be a disappointment, but the team can begin growing for a better 2018.

Fail to make a bowl and then the season verges on disaster. And, at that point, it feels like change has to happen.

If these stakes do not increase urgency around the program, nothing may do that. And that is really what Northwestern has to focus on as this season seemingly begins anew this Saturday. The Wildcats are fighting to keep their program seemingly afloat.

At some point, Northwestern will have to compete for something more meaningful than a minor bowl game. That “perfect storm” team will come again.

Until then, the Wildcats have to play for what they can.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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