Northwestern came into the season with its star quarterback limited, lost its top running back early on, dropped three straight games and went winless in nonconference play.

Sounds like a recipe for one long season, except take a look at the Big Ten West standings. That’s right, the Wildcats lead the lead the division.

“Yeah, it’s been a really unique year,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

The Wildcats (5-4, 5-1 Big Ten) can clinch the division title and their first appearance in the Big Ten championship simply by winning two of their final three games. They would also secure a spot Saturday with a victory at Iowa plus losses by Wisconsin at Penn State and Purdue at Minnesota.

It’s quite a position for a team that wasn’t widely considered a favorite to win its division, though Northwestern is hardly the only surprise in the Big Ten.

Whether it’s teams exceeding expectations or traditional powers not quite meeting them, it has been a wild season around the conference.

No. 8 Ohio State (8-1, 5-1) came into the season as a favorite to reach the playoffs, only to get blown out by Purdue two weeks ago. The Buckeyes also had to rally in the second half and then hang on for a five-point win at Nebraska this past Saturday.

No. 21 Penn State (6-3, 3-3) also had high expectations. But back-to-back tight losses to Ohio State and Michigan State and a blowout by Michigan last week doused their playoff hopes.

Then there’s No. 4 Michigan (8-1, 6-0), picked by some to finish fourth in the Big Ten East behind the Buckeyes, Michigan State and Penn State. The Wolverines instead are a playoff contender and leading their division, with Ohio State second, Michigan State third and Penn State tied with Maryland for fourth place.

In the West, Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2) and Iowa (6-3, 3-3) haven’t performed the way they hoped.

Purdue (5-4, 4-2), looking to build on a bowl victory last season, looked like it was going in the tank with an 0-3 start. But the Boilermakers have won five of six to play their way into the running for the Big Ten West championship. They beat three ranked teams along the way for the first time in 15 years, including that stunning 29-point win over Ohio State.

“Things are gonna change dramatically between now and the finish line. But that’s part of the intrigue of college football,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Spartans great dies

Walt Kowalczyk, a star halfback at Michigan State who finished third in the 1957 Heisman Trophy race, has died. He was 83.

Michigan State says Kowalczyk died Wednesday.

Nicknamed “The Sprinting Blacksmith,” Kowalczyk helped the Spartans to top-three finishes in the AP poll for the 1955 and 1957 seasons. He was named MVP of the 1956 Rose Bowl.

Kowalczyk led the Spartans in rushing during the 1957 season and scored nine rushing touchdowns. He also ranked second in all-purpose yards. John David Crow of Texas A&M topped the Heisman vote that season, followed by Alex Karras, who later starred for the Detroit Lions, and Kowalczyk.

Kowalczyk was drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958. He spent three seasons in the NFL, two with Philadelphia and one with Dallas, and finished his career in the AFL with Oakland in 1961.

Thursday's Top 25

Wake Forest 27, (at) No. 22 North Carolina State 23: Jamie Newman threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Jack Freudenthal with 30 seconds left. Making his first career start, Newman was 22 of 33 for 297 yards with three touchdown passes in the second half to help the Demon Deacons (5-5, 2-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) rally from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. The 19.5-point underdogs earned their first road victory over a Top 25 team in a decade.

Newman threw a 38-yard scoring pass to Alex Bachman before his 19-yard TD to Greg Dortch pulled Wake Forest to 23-20 with 6:07 left.

N.C. State bled nearly 4 1/2 minutes off the clock before its drive stalled at the Wake Forest 20 with 1:39 left. Newman completed 5 of 8 passes on the possession that followed, taking a hit as he connected with a wide-open Freudenthal over the middle for the go-ahead score.

The Wolfpack advanced to their own 49 before Ryan Finley’s final pass for the end zone was intercepted by receiver Scottie Washington – playing defensive back on the last play – to end it.

Finley finished 35 of 52 for 374 yards with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Emeka Emezie and a 2-yard touchdown run for the Wolfpack (6-3, 3-3, No. 14 CFP). They have lost three of four.

Extra points

Wisconsin standout nose tackle Olive Sagapolu will miss the rest of the season with a right arm injury, while quarterback Alex Hornibrook remains questionable for the game at No. 21 Penn State on Saturday.

Former Marshall University standout running back Devon Johnson, 25, who led the team to a conference championship in 2014, has died.