Since none of us want to actually talk about Northwestern's game Saturday, let's get big picture.
This year hasn't gone well, and we all know that. Northwestern is 2-5, 0-4 in conference. That's not good. So here's a bunch of things that are, in my opinion, indisputably true about what's happened and what could happen. Some of them are positive, some of them are negative, some of them are guaranteed to set off flame wars in the comments, but I think that all of them are correct.
Northwestern could still make a bowl.
No, not a good one, and yes, it's getting unlikely. With five games left, NU needs four wins. Three of them would come against Indiana, Rice, and Minnesota. Although NU hasn't been good, these teams are also unfortunately bad, and although we can't guarantee a win in any of these games - obviously, NU lost to Army - NU appears to be a better team. The other two games come against Nebraska and Michigan State. Although both of these will likely be blowouts, I can't rule out an NU win in either one. (Well, maybe Michigan State, but I digress.) The Cats have been competitive in every game, but haven't found a way to get a win. Perhaps that trend will continue, but the diversity of NU's ways of losing leads me to believe that a win that could seal a trip to a lower-tier bowl in one of those two games is possible.
Northwestern has played slightly better than its record.
It's impressive that out of its last five games, Northwestern has won zero. I'm not saying they should have won two or three. Last week was the first game in a while NU wasn't leading or tied at some point in the second half - they were down three at halftime - but between never being down by more than seven against Army - and being tied for much of it - leading by 18 against Illinois and having a chance to win it at the end, being up 10 against Michigan, being tied in the second half after reeling off 17 straight points against Iowa, and the Penn State game, NU really should have found a way to be 3-4 right now instead of 2-5. I'm not saying the team couldn't have won more of those games, I'm just saying it's silly that they haven't won any.
We can't blame this on Dan Persa's injury.
We talked about Dan Persa as a gamechanger, a world-beater, a guy whose difference-making ability was so thorough that he should be considered for a Heisman candidate. After going 7-3 with him and 0-3 without him, we had reason to believe this - perhaps we were a little hyperbolic even considering that, but, whatever. We imagined a team that would be hapless this year without him and a very good Big Ten team with him. This pretty blatantly hasn't been true. Although Persa has been spectacular at times, making plays no other player I remember watching could even comprehend, he has had no effect on NU's wins and losses. In three games without him, NU was 2-1, with Kain Colter winning against BC and Eastern Illinois. In four with him, NU is 0-4. Two counterpoints: the offense looked anemic against Army, and perhaps NU would have won with Dan Persa rather than Colter, and perhaps the season is very different - see a later point - if NU had had Persa in that game. And secondly, his injuries late in games against Illinois and Penn State really took the winds out of NU's sails. But I'd also argue that doesn't really make a difference: Colter did have a touchdown drive against Illinois against a short field and NU still could have beaten Penn State from the position Persa put us in. My point here isn't that Dan Persa hasn't been good - in fact, he's been great, look at his completion percentage - it's just that he hasn't made the difference we expected him to to take NU from being a 2-5 team to a contender.
The defense is horrible.
Penn State's 34 last week was the lowest total a Big Ten team has put up against NU. The team couldn't get off the field against Army, one of the worst teams in the BCS. There has been no notable pass rush, there have been massive breakdowns in the secondary. Although I think things will improve with some different defensive strategies and David Arnold rather than Ibraheim Campbell at safety, But it's been bad. It's kept Northwestern out of games.
We should really, really, really want the Army game back.
Northwestern has looked competitive against ranked teams and yet lost to one of the worst teams in the country. You might be thinking: oh, it's an out-of-conference game, NU has lost those before without repercussions in the grand scheme of things - what's the difference between being 2-5 (0-4) and 3-4 (0-4)? In summary, a lot. One of those teams likely makes a bowl, the other will need things to change quickly.
This program is, by definition, not "trending upwards".
I predict this starts a very annoying argument, but, whatever.
When I was a freshman, a Northwestern team with a spectacular defense won nine games and was briefly ranked. My sophomore year, a team with Mike Kafka won eight. Last year, Dan Persa willed the team to seven wins and the team dropped three after his injury. This year, NU will have to win out in order to equal that total, and will likely win less. That's four straight years of less success. Say what you will about continued competitiveness, and the state of the program, which I think is fine, and off-field changes, which I think have gotten much better. But in terms of results, my college's football team has gotten worse each of the four years I've attended that college, and that absolutely sucks.