It’s hard, sometimes, to view Northwestern as a serious contender in the Big Ten.
Maybe it’s simply the nature of college football in the Midwest’s premier conference, the same way most folks still believe everything revolves around Ann Arbor and Columbus.
After all, for decades the Wildcats were the doormats of the Big Ten. Entering the 1995 season, they had been to a grand total of one bowl game.
But things have changed dramatically since with Northwestern winning three conference titles and going to five straight bowl games heading into this season. On top of that, coach Pat Fitzgerald has built off the momentum of predecessors Randy Walker and Gary Barnett. In his first seven seasons, Fitzgerald has finished below .500 just twice and only one time — his first season of 2006 — failed to win at least six games.
Quite simply, Northwestern is a true contender in the Big Ten, a team that should absolutely not be overlooked. In a Legends Division full of teams still trying to find their way – Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State are battling to see which is the most confusing in that race — Northwestern might be the most complete team.
That means it is a team that has as good a chance as any to get a shot to knock off Ohio State — the prohibitive favorite in the Leaders Division — at the end of the season in the Big Ten championship game.
Luckily, there will be a preview. Northwestern takes next week off and will have a bit of extra time to prepare for a visit from the Buckeyes on Oct. 5.
“I think we’ve been a part of a lot of games that are important,” Fitzgerald said. “This is the first opportunity to play Big Ten football, so that’s why it’s important. That’s why all of our guys come here. It’s one of the first things we talk about in recruiting, is the opportunity to play Big Ten football at the best academic school in the country.”
While Ohio State was doing its job cleaning up against patsies in the non-conference, Northwestern was busy finishing off a perfect 4-0 mark, as well.
The Wildcats opened the season with impressive wins over Syracuse and California but struggled the past two weeks against Western Michigan and Maine. In fact, in Saturday’s win, it was Maine that outgained Northwestern, which had to rely on two defensive touchdowns to pull away from the FCS opponent.
But Fitzgerald was hardly fretting.
“We can only go 1-0 each week,” he said. “That’s what we’ve done. Hopefully we’ll continue to improve. That has been the hallmark of this program.”
However, just being 4-0 isn’t enough for this team.
Maybe in years past it would be cause for celebration. But those days are long gone. This Wildcats team understands where it wants to be and knows it won’t get there playing the way it did on Saturday.
“It’s obviously great to win the ballgame,” wide receiver Tony Jones said, “but we know that we have so much more left in the tank. This is the second straight week we came back knowing we could have played a lot better. It just keeps us hungry. We know the potential this team has if we actually play up to our capabilities.”
Added running back Mike Trumpy, “A win’s a win, but we understand there’s a lot we need to improve upon.”
They’ll have time to work on it, but the next time the Wildcats step on the field, they’ll be out to prove they are a player in the Big Ten.
It’s been that way for quite a while, even if perception has seen things differently.
“Our guys are excited for that challenge to play in this conference,” Fitzgerald said. “We got through the nonconference slate unblemished and that’s kind of the goal, and now everything starts over.”
QB Miller still OSU starter
While Northwestern was taking care of business, Ohio State was doing the same, laughing its way past Florida A&M and preparing for a showdown of its own next week when Wisconsin comes to the Horseshoe to open Big Ten play.
But while things have gone smoothly, for the most part, the Buckeyes might be getting themselves into a sticky situation at quarterback.
Braxton Miller entered the season as a Heisman contender but injured his knee early in the second game against San Diego State. Since then, Kenny Guiton has been outstanding. Against Florida A&M, he threw for a school-record six touchdowns.
Coach Urban Meyer said Miller, who did not dress for the game, remains the starter but Guiton won’t be relegated to the sidelines.
“Our backup quarterback has earned some time,” Meyer said. “I can’t begin to tell you (how much). I’ve been going through some scenarios in my mind, and I don’t know what it is. I’m going to see how we practice this week, but Braxton is our starting quarterback.”
The Buckeyes and their quarterbacks will certainly be put to the test the next two weeks against Wisconsin and Northwestern, but Meyer thinks his team is in a good position.
“You come to Ohio State to compete for the Big Ten championship,” Meyer said. “That actually started in a meeting just a minute ago.
“Are we prepared? I like to think we are. The defense had a lot of new players in there, so that question shall be answered for sure next week. But as a coach, I believe we are ready.”
Nebraska frustrated by defense
It was a tough week at Nebraska for coach Bo Pelini.
He was hammered after a tape from two years ago was revealed with Pelini trashing Nebraska fans. It was ugly and Pelini could still be on thin ice with the Nebraska administration.
But what might be uglier is the Huskers defense.
Sure, they beat South Dakota State, even with quarterback Taylor Martinez out with an injury. But it was hardly a resounding performance for a defensive unit that has spent the first part of the season laying out a red carpet for opponents.
On Saturday, South Dakota State’s first two drives totaled nine plays, 146 yards and two touchdowns in a little more than three minutes of possession.
“It’s frustrating,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “Sometimes we see progress on the practice field and in the game, and other times it looks like we’re taking two steps backward.”
Nebraska was coming off a game against UCLA when it gave up 504 total yards. In the opener against Wyoming, it gave up 602. Against South Dakota State — an FCS school — it was 465.
“Sometimes it’s hard to evaluate,” Papuchis said. “When you don’t tackle anyone, and there are missed assignments all over the place, it’s a difficult evaluation in terms of what you can and what you can’t do. Every week with this group right now feels like it’s a new adventure.”
An adventure full of surprises — none very appealing for Nebraska fans.
How the Big Ten fared
Michigan d. Connecticut, 24-21 Next week: Idle
Michigan State l. to Notre Dame, 17-13 Next week: Idle
Minnesota d. San Jose State, 43-24 Next week: vs. Iowa, 3:30 (ABC)
Northwestern d. Maine, 35-21 Next week: Idle
Iowa d. Western Michigan, 59-3 Next week: at Minnesota, 3:30 (ABC)
Nebraska d. South Dakota State, 59-20 Next week: Idle
Ohio State d. Florida A&M, 76-0 Next week: vs. Wisconsin, 8 (ABC)
Penn State d. Kent State, 34-0 Next week: Idle
Illinois didn’t play Next week: vs. Miami (O.), 12 (BTN)
Wisconsin d. Purdue, 41-10 Next week: at Ohio State, 8 (ABC)
Indiana l. to Missouri, 45-28 Next week: Idle
Purdue l. to Wisconsin, 41-10 Next week: vs. Northern Illinois, 12 (ESPN2)