EVANSTON | The idea that Northwestern and Michigan would be meeting in a marquee matchup vanished long ago, their lofty expectations buried under a pile of losses.
Instead, the Wildcats host the Wolverines today in a matchup between struggling teams that were aiming high not too long ago.
Northwestern (4-5, 0-5 Big Ten) wanted to assert itself among the best in the Big Ten. Michigan was aiming for its first conference championship since 2004.
The Wildcats own a five-game losing streak that in some ways has felt like a series of gut punches and has thrown their bowl eligibility into jeopardy. Michigan (6-3, 2-3) has dropped three of four to fall three games behind Michigan State and out of contention in the Legends Division race.
"There's no easy fixes to anything ever in life," Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said. "This is life and life lessons that are taught through the game of football. If it takes a guy maybe learning some difficult lessons through the game of football that's going to help them down the road, that's part of it."
Michigan's been unable to protect the quarterback or open holes in the run game, and it hasn't had much success away from the Big House, either. The Wolverines are 5-7 in away games in Hoke's three seasons.
Even if they took Saturday's game, won at Iowa and beat Ohio State at home, college football's winningest program would lose a tiebreaker to Michigan State if the Spartans dropped their final three games.
Northwestern is in a spot it never envisioned, either.
It's almost hard to believe there was so much buzz surrounding the program just five weeks ago, but one gut-wrenching stretch has silenced it all.
The Wildcats were ranked 16th at 4-0 and leading Ohio State by 10 in the third quarter on a raucous night in early October only to fall by 10. A week later, they were blown out at Wisconsin and a three-point loss to Minnesota followed. As if that wasn't enough, Northwestern fell in overtime at Iowa. Then came the ultimate blow — a 27-24 loss at Nebraska when the Cornhuskers' Jordan Westerkamp snagged Ron Kellogg III's tipped desperation heave with no time left.
"It's definitely frustrating when you lose like that," Wildcats defensive lineman Tyler Scott said. "When you lose in general it's not a good feeling but when you lose that close when you know you've had it, it's tough. But the perseverance and attitude of the team hasn't changed, everyone's come to work with a great attitude."
Here are things to look for in this game:
PROTECTION PROBLEMS: Michigan sure could use some help from its embattled offensive line, with Devin Gardner taking a beating and the running game going nowhere. Gardner has been sacked seven times each in back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Nebraska, and as bad as that was, the ball-carriers are faring no better. They were held to minus-21 yards rushing against the Cornhuskers. For those looking for a bright spot, here's one: That was actually an improvement over the previous week, when Michigan set a school-record low with minus-48 on the ground at Michigan State.
NO MARK: Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced this week that running back Venric Mark will miss the remainder of the season because of a broken ankle. The senior plans to seek a medical hardship and return next year. Mark was coming off a spectacular season in which he ran for 1,366 yards and scored touchdowns as a rusher, receiver and punt returner. But he was basically derailed from the start this year, playing in just three games. He missed three of Northwestern's first four games because of a lower body injury and broke his ankle at Wisconsin on Oct. 12.
PICK 'EM: Northwestern had four interceptions against Nebraska to run its total to 18 and is tied with Florida State and Houston for No. 1 in the nation. It's also two shy of the school record set in 1948 and 2005. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim Campbell are tied for the team lead with four.
CATCHING GALLON: Michigan's Jeremy Gallon has at least five receptions the past four games and has caught a pass in 35 straight. He set school and Big Ten records with 369 yards receiving in a rout over Indiana last month.
UNIFORM SUPPORT: Northwestern is trading its familiar purple for a patriot uniform with the stars and stripes across the shoulders and a distressed pattern that to some looks like a blood-stained flag. The uniforms designed by Under Armour have drawn enough criticism to elicit a clarification from the school and an apology for any misinterpretation. The jerseys will be auctioned after the game, with the proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior Project.