Northwestern was beaten, broken, like we never expected, like we have never been taught to expect.
The Wildcats tried, likely no less than in the previous week's thriller against Ohio State. You need your pride and dignity to suffer through those final minutes, on days like today, when everything collapses.
And sometimes there are no answers. We are left to explain the many things that contributed to the stunning blowout, and the hopes that gradually evaporated.
Perhaps one in 100 end like this: Wisconsin dominating so completely en route to a four-score win. Perhaps it would have happened more often; you never know until each week's fateful 60 minutes.
I would use the word "shock" in describing Northwestern football today. There was no fear, and there never is with Pat Fitzgerald teams. Every time the passes fluttered short and the offensive line sagged and the secondary faded and the Badgers cheered, it felt as if there lacked a blueprint. There was never a response. The closest we had was linebacker Damien Proby holding back tears during a difficult press conference.
I'm stuck with this, about an hour since time expired: At one point, there were eight minutes remaining—somehow. I turned to someone and said, "How is that possible?" The players shuffled on and off the field, listless as ever, and it was painful to watch. The beating never ended.
Northwestern had another chance today. Beat Wisconsin, and Big Ten Championship game hopes would return. Today provided one definitive answer: The program is not there yet.
By the final whistle, it was clear to everyone in attendance. There was that finish line, finally reached at 0:00, and another one waiting in Northwestern football's future.
At some point during the Pat Fitzgerald era, Northwestern will win this kind of game. And really, today formed the miniature of how this program has developed in recent seasons: Fans expected to win in this environment, or compete at the very least.
But here are some facts: Northwestern is not a Big Ten Championship contender, yet. The Wildcats have not won a truly big game since Nebraska in 2011, and even then, it only salvaged bowl contention. NU and Pat Fitzgerald create championship expectations, which looked decidedly ridiculous in Madison. And are not satisfied with 0-2. (Nor should they be.)
I'm not confident that NU can beat Nebraska, Michigan or Michigan State—three teams that currently look far superior to the Wildcats' on-field mess. Why recount facts from the game when they seem so fresh? Where do we start? This season could end in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, or worse, because they can't quite put it together.
Two years ago, the Wildcats stumbled to a 6-7 season filled with mediocrity. Since then, they ended the bowl drought and entertained serious hopes of contending with the current roster. So it's not today, not tomorrow, not in this regular season that will likely end at 7-5 or 8-4.
They can get there. With better recruiting, coaching, execution, et cetera, there's no reason to believe that NU can't reach the pinnacle. This year, Rose Bowl hopes seem as out of line as Daniel Jones' knee.
The minutes and seconds mercifully ran out on Saturday. The clock still ticks on another journey: the search for legitimacy.
And we're not there yet.