Northwestern players watch from the sideline during a 2020 night game against Maryland. Despite a packed student section and high expectations against out-of-conference opponent Miami (OH), the 'Cats could not secure a win Saturday night. Photo by Madison Smith / North by Northwestern

There is a popular figure from Greek mythology known as Sisyphus, who is tasked with eternally rolling a massive boulder up a hill, only for it to fall any time he got close to the top.

Watching Northwestern football (1-3, 1-0 B1G) this season feels like rolling that rock up the hill.

Countless times now there have been glimpses of differences from the horrid 3-9 campaign of last year, only to find the team crushed yet again. The most dismal of disappointments so far came on Saturday night, when the Wildcats lost to the Miami RedHawks (2-2, 0-0 MAC) 17-14 at home in front of a packed student section.

The disappointment didn’t come from just losing a football game; sometimes a team is just outmatched by an opponent, and fans can still go home proud of the effort their squad put forth. The issue with Northwestern is that they’ve now consistently lost to teams they should have beaten, and have done so by their own hand.

“We continue to beat ourselves,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of his unit’s performance. “You can’t beat two teams.”

Starting third-year quarterback Ryan Hilinski credited the stall to “guys not hustling, not what [they] do in practice.”

The game as a whole turned out to be a rough outing for a Northwestern offense who had averaged 26 points before going into the game. Hilinski completed just 59% of his passes for 257 yards, and standout third-year running back Evan Hull struggled to muster 62 yards on the ground. Senior wideout Malik Washington also starred, catching eight balls for 81 yards, but also coughing up two costly fumbles.

Northwestern had a good start to the game, as they defensively stifled the RedHawks to the tune of three straight punts in the first quarter, and scored a touchdown on just their second drive.

But as the second quarter began, something changed. A promising NU drive stopped on a dime due to a Malik Washington fumble. Although Miami wouldn’t capitalize on that opportunity, that mistake sparked a period of offensive drought for the ’Cats, who crossed midfield on only one of their next four drives.

On the other side of the field, the defense held strong up until the last minutes of the second quarter, when, after a blocked punt, Miami started at Northwestern’s 8 yard line, and were able to reach the end zone and tie the game.

The defensive performance was due in no small part to the return of two standouts from injury, third-year defensive backs Coco Azema and Cam Mitchell. Azema tied for first on the team in solo tackles on the day with nine, and Mitchell had a sack and three tackles of his own.

Fitzgerald mentioned that it was good to have those two back, and that they’re “great leaders.”

Thankfully, the game remained tied going into the final frame due in part to Miami having miscues of their own. Miami scored no points following the aforementioned fumble due to a missed field goal that hit right off the post. In the third quarter, the RedHawk offense was practically a non-factor, as they didn’t complete a single pass, and had another field goal blocked.

Both teams scored touchdowns in the fourth quarter to liven up an offensively dreadful game, and the Wildcat defense would slowly wither away on a long drive, resulting in Miami taking a three-point lead and leaving Northwestern just 21 seconds to score, a near impossible task.

Northwestern lost in heartbreaking fashion, made even more painful at the fact that this was an out-of-conference team the ’Cats were expected to beat.

Even with the substandard performance, it seems that those in charge plan to make little-to-no changes to the gameplan, even with an away game against No. 11 Penn State (4-0, 1-0 B1G) looming next Saturday.

“I don’t think we have a practice problem right now,” Fitzgerald said when asked to comment on what has gone wrong. “We’re just not executing on gameday for whatever reason.”

Mitchell echoed the vague criticism, stating that the team simply needs to “want it more.”

The Wildcats roll back into Big Ten play next week against Penn State. If the issues with this team are more complex than just stamina or effort brought up by Fitzgerald, the squad looks to be in for more losses ahead.

Until then, Northwestern fans will continue to roll that rock up the hill, never to reach the glory they desire.