MADISON, Wis. — A Northwestern football season that began with promise — and promises — now is littered with question marks.
Saturday's 35-6 mugging from Wisconsin will kick the No. 19 Wildcats out of the Top 25. And their 0-2 league start will lead Big Ten followers to wonder if they were duped by the preseason hype.
Northwestern was the trendy pick by some in July to win the Legends Division. That was hardly an outrageous prediction. Fifteen starters returned from a 10-3 team that, we often were reminded, was 5 minutes, 3 seconds short of going undefeated in 2012.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald was fully onboard about breaking new ground at Big Ten media days:
“We've had five straight bowl seasons, but we're just getting started at Northwestern. It's time for action.”
“We're not satisfied with just going to bowl games anymore. The expectation is to win championships.”
“We want to put the trophy in our case.”
But nobody gets a trophy for getting smoked, regardless of the circumstances — Wisconsin coming off a bye week and Northwestern trying to rebound from a 40-30 loss to No. 4 Ohio State.
UW outgained Northwestern 527 yards to 241, and the yardage discrepancy and the score could have been much worse. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave missed several receivers in stride and threw two interceptions. There was a field-goal miss from 38 yards, too.
Still, this was a breeze for Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1).
For Northwestern (4-2, 0-2), losing to the Big Ten's two best teams to start league play hardly ends the season.
“We've dug a nice little hole for ourselves,” said quarterback Trevor Siemian, who could have used a trench for protection.
The 68.2 percent passer completed 38.2 percent (13 of 34) Saturday for 163 yards. He was sacked five times. The six points ended a run of seven straight games for Northwestern of scoring at least 30 points — tied for the second-longest active string in the nation.
“Not our day,” Fitzgerald said. “We were as held-in-check offensively as maybe in my last five years.”
The offense had to play around ankle injuries to two of its best weapons.
Quarterback Kain Colter (4 of 5 passing, 34 yards and an interception) and running back Venric Mark (three carries, 8 yards) had little impact. Their availability going forward remains unknown.
Whatever the woes for Northwestern, a close loss to Wisconsin would have been viewed as understandable and forgivable.
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But getting throttled like that — fewest points scored in seven years, lowest rushing total in six — has rattled my confidence in the Wildcats being a title threat.
Fitzgerald claims it hasn't rattled his.
“I hope this gives our guys a punch right in the face and wakes them up,” he said. “It's hard to win Big Ten football games.
“When you get punched in the face, you better shake the cobwebs out and respond. Now we play another team with a bye week before they play us, so here we go. Buckle it up and let's play some Big Ten football.”
My nagging feeling after covering Northwestern the past two weeks is the Wildcats still don't have enough depth of talent to get to the top. On a depth chart of the top 44 players, they probably have 25 to 28 title-caliber guys when assessing size, strength and speed. You need about 35.
A sign of that — and it's a significant worry — is the repeated gashing from opponents running the ball the past two games.
Ohio State's Carlos Hyde rumbled 168 yards in 26 carries with three touchdowns. On Saturday, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (22-176) and James White (19-101) found large holes, especially on TD runs of 71 and 24 yards.
(Maybe someone in Nebraska can get a memo to Husker offensive coordinator Tim Beck before Northwestern comes to Lincoln. Tape shut that Christmas catalog-sized playbook and RUN THE BALL on Nov. 2.)
One thing I'm not going to do here is bash Fitzgerald for his sunny outlook last summer. It's good to see a coach from an underdog program challenge his team and the whole school to move up another step.
Too bad the Northwestern fan base whiffed Saturday.
Even with the game being within easy driving distance, only about 200 fans in purple attended. It was the smallest cluster of visiting fans I've ever seen follow a ranked team.
There were things to cheer early. Northwestern forced a Wisconsin fumble on the first possession and turned it into a field goal for a 3-0 lead. Then came seven consecutive punts for an offense ranked 32nd nationally.
“We started off the way we wanted,” Fitzgerald said. “But as the game went on, we lost our focus somehow, someway.”
Somehow, someway, Northwestern needs to regain focus quickly. Or this potential breakthrough season will become one of broken dreams.